Qualifying for the World Cup is never easy, unless you live in Asia – I see you, Uzbekistan and Omar.
It’s especially daunting in Africa, where teams not only have to top their initial groups, but survive a head-to-head, two-leg brawl for one of the final five spots.
The toughness is part of what makes CAF qualifying so compelling. A single slip can send the favorites hurtling toward oblivion, keeping even the heaviest of weights on their toes.
Halfway through the first round – technically the second, but only for the minnows, so just go with it – seems as good a time as any to check in.
Here are five games to watch this weekend to whet your palate for the stretch run:
Lesotho at Zambia, 9 a.m (all times Eastern) Saturday
The one-team-only format can be especially cruel with a rough draw. See: Group D, which contains both last year’s Cup of Nations winners Zambia and continental powerhouse Ghana. Zambia has a tentative one-point hold on the top spot, but the win that put it there, a 1-0 defeat of the Black Stars, feels every day of its 12 months ago. Lesotho bounced back from their 7-0 hiding against Ghana to manage a shock draw against Zambia in March. Even the white-shirted, forever suave Herve Renard is beginning to feel the heat. Anything but three points will be disastrous for the Copper Bullets — expect a tense one in Ndola.
South Africa at Central African Republic, 10:00 a.m. Saturday
It remains to be seen whether the lasting legacy of the 2010 World Cup involves anything but a neat historical footnote and the more permanent “white elephant stadiums,” because recent returns from the national team have been a disaster. First, there was the sham that was last year’s Cup of Nations qualifying round, where Bafana Bafana played for a draw in their last game when they, in fact, needed a win to get in. World Cup qualifying hasn’t gone much better. South Africa sits two points back of first-place Ethiopia. It could desperately use a boost of positive momentum ahead of next weekend’s visit to the land of the Walia Antelopes, while a loss to third-place CAR could all but knock South Africa out.
Tunisia at Sierra Leone, 12:30 p.m. Saturday
This one is more straightforward: Tunisia can punch their ticket to the next round with a win. The Eagles of Carthage are an attacking, creative squad – including my personal favorite Oussama Darragi, nicknamed Darriginoh by at least one YouTube poster – and have been rewarded with a comfortable romp so far. The Kei-Kamara-led Leone Stars can throw Group B into chaos with an upset in Freetown. Equatorial Guinea is also waiting in the wings five points back, and gets a home shot at Tunisia next weekend. Aesthetic value of the favorites aside, I’m rooting for the anarchy.
Tanzania at Morocco, 4:00 p.m. Saturday
Tanzania has emerged as a surprise dark horse in Group C, and a win here would set up a winner-takes-control match with the Ivory Coast next Saturday. The delightfully named Taifa Stars have not only never made the World Cup, they’ve only even qualified for the Cup of Nations once, in 1980. Every player on the current squad is based in the Tanzanian domestic league sans promising young strikers Mbwana Samata and Thomas Emanuel Ulimwengu, both of whom play for continental champions TP Mazembe in DR Congo. Standing in the way of such a mouthwatering David-v-Goliath showdown is traditional-power-fallen-on-hard-times Morocco. Anyone outside Casablanca not pulling for Tanzania is made of stone.
Egypt at Zimbabwe, 9 a.m. Sunday
The fighting Bob Bradleys can reach out and touch the final round. Only Egypt, Tunisia and Congo (?!) have taken the full nine points from their opening three matches, and the Pharaohs are five up on second-place Guinea. The first encounter was tight, as nearly every Egyptian match has been, with a pair of goals from national demigod Mohamed Aboutrika and a 93rd minute header from Mohamed Salah edging Egypt to a 3-2 win. Put it this way: The Pharaohs would very much like to have the top spot locked up by the last-day rematch. Full points from this tricky Zimbabwe jaunt would help.
Follow along with all the action from this weekend’s African qualifiers @mattpentz