Battle of the nations
Zambia host South Africa at the Independence Stadium in Lusaka in the biggest tie in this region this weekend as the battle for a place at the 2008 Nations Cup finals gets into round two with a mouth-watering menu across the continent.
Across the border in Malawi, there is another explosive duel between a Flames team adjusting to life after German coach Burkhard Ziese and a Zimbabwe Warriors side adjusting to life under new captain Benjani Mwaruwari.
The Warriors were inactive during the first round of the campaign for a place at the finals in Ghana because they are in a three-team group and the opening tie featured a clash between the Flames and Morocco.
The Atlas Lions of Morocco are inactive this weekend and have, instead, chosen to go for a training camp in the Netherlands.
But the other giants of African football are in Southern Africa this weekend with the Super Eagles of Nigeria ‘ ranked by Fifa as the best team on the continent ‘ in Maseru for a date against Lesotho.
The Super Eagles, who finished third at the last Nations Cup finals in Egypt, got their campaign underway with a solid 2-0 home victory over Niger.
In contrast, Lesotho were at the receiving end of a 0-3 defeat in Kampala at the hands of Uganda.
Lesotho are not expected to offer much of a resistance against a Nigerian team that has been boosted by the return of striker Yakubu, who missed the Nations Cup because of a row with coach Austin Eguavoen.
A lot of Nigerians believe that the absence of the big Middlesborough striker was the difference between their team winning the Nations Cup for the first time in 12 years and ending up, as they did, as third-place play-off winners.
Yakubu has since made peace with Eguavoen and scored on his return in the victory over Niger.
He was also on target in the English Premiership at the weekend but ended up on the losing side after a 1-2 defeat at Sheffield United.
Eguavoen has also called up veteran midfielder Jay Jay Okocha, who last month announced that he was coming out of international football retirement.
Now playing in Qatar, Okocha was called in as a late replacement for striker Stephen Makinwa, who was injured in the Italian Serie A where he plays for Lazio.
The Pharaohs of Egypt ‘ stylish winners of the Nations Cup for a record fifth time on home soil in February ‘ are also here in Southern Africa for a date against Botswana.
The Egyptians comprehensively won their opening game 4-1 at home to Burundi while the Zebras of Botswana slumped to a humiliating 0-4 defeat at the hands of Mauritania.
The Pharaohs trounced Burundi just a few days after the death of defender Mohamed Abdelwahab, who collapsed on the field during training.
Botswana’s defeat in Mauritania was a terrible blow for the Zebras who, until then, had convinced the world that they were slowly getting into the shape to compete favourably with the regional heavyweights like Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia.
Having gone all the way to the semi-final of the Cosafa Castle Cup, where they lost narrowly to Zambia in an away tie, Botswana were largely expected to do better in the Nations Cup qualifiers.
Peter Goldstein, a columnist for the Planet World Cup football website and an authority on African football, was one of the seasoned observers who were shocked by the extent of the mauling the Zebras got in Mauritania.
“In one of the two biggest surprises of the weekend, Mauritania smashed visiting Botswana 4-0,” he wrote in his column.
“Okay, they were at home, but Mauritania usually doesn’t win anywhere. There had been some warning, though, because the U-17s had upset Algeria in the first round of the regional qualifiers.
“The senior side had beaten the Senegalese Olympic team 1-0 in a friendly and Botswana were without two of their best players, striker Diphetogo ‘Dipsy’ Selolwane and midfielder Mogogi Gabonamong.
“But no one could have expected two goals in the first 10 minutes, two more before the interval, and complete domination.
“The 4-0 victory was the biggest win in Mauritania’s history and a major success for new technical director Ali Fergani, who played for Algeria at the 1982 World Cup.
“It’s a bit too early to suggest they’ll qualify, but if they really have jumped up in class, second place in this group is by no means out of the question.”
Now Botswana host the Pharaohs and they will have to do far better than their debacle in Mauritania to contain one of the deadliest strike-forces on the continent.
Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Hossam Ghaly returns to the Egyptian team for the first time in almost a year.
But the real danger man is attacking midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, the Al Ahly dangerman who has scored five times in the African Champions League this season.
There is an Indian Ocean island derby with Seychelles hosting Mauritius in a game that the latter should win if they maintain the form they had in the last tie.
Mauritius posted one of the shock results of the opening weekend with a brave 0-0 draw against former African champions Tunisia at home in a match that they could have won with a little luck.
The home team even won the respect of Tunisia coach Roger Lemerre.
“Mauritius showed that football is played with intelligence. I am happy that we grabbed a point,” said Lemerre, who watched his side miss a first-half penalty.
Seychelles, in contrast, slumped to a 0-3 defeat away in Sudan in their first match in the campaign. The little Indian Ocean island is just trying to get to grips with football on the mainland but they should fancy their chances playing against their neighbours. Football, really, is not the biggest issue when it comes to life in the Seychelles.
They are likely to be worried more about tourists than football results and that is why the biggest news so far has not been about this weekend’s game.
Instead, it has been about a woman called Valerie Adam who gave birth to quadruplets last month ‘ the first such birth on the paradise island in 53 years.
Mozambique lost the battle to host the 2010 Nations Cup finals and will neither host the tournament in 2012 nor 2014.
It was a big blow for the football authorities in that country who had banked on hosting such a high-profile tournament to breathe life into their ailing national sport.
They don’t expect much from the Mambas either in this campaign and no one really cared that they lost their opening game 0-2 against Senegal in Dakar.
They are at home this weekend and they should fancy their chances against Tanzania, who have also been struggling to emerge from years of decline.
The problem with Mozambique is that there has been a dearth of quality junior talent emerging in the country and while their neighbours boast of players plying their trade in Europe, their star players ‘ if ever they could be described as such ‘ are all in South Africa.
In contrast Angola ‘ the other Portuguese-speaking country in Southern Africa ‘ are on the rise and should win their home game against a Kenyan team in turmoil.
Angola will be without captain Figueiredo and defender Yamba after the Sweden-based duo was injured, but they should be too strong at home to overpower Kenya.
Swaziland have a tough tie against an Eritrea side buoyant after their surprise win over Kenya in the opening game while Namibia ‘ who bravely stretched the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first game before losing 2-3 ‘ host Ethiopia.
Zimbabwe’s Warriors will start to adjust to a new leadership under captain Benjani with a tough date against Malawi at the Kamuzu Stadium.
Benjani, who plays for Portsmouth in England and could have chosen to play for Malawi where his parents hail from, replaced veteran Peter Ndlovu as captain of the Warriors.
But the real deal is in Lusaka.
The Zambians have been searching their soul after violence erupted following the elections which gave President Levy Mwanawasa a second and final term in office.
Now that divided country should unite for the cause of their beloved national team this weekend as Chipolopolo search for their second straight win after an impressive 2-0 victory over Chad during the opening weekend.
In contrast, South Africa were held to a goalless draw at home by Congo.
Bafana Bafana caretaker coach Pitso Mosimane has recalled former captain Sibusiso Zuma and winger Delron Buckley for this weekend’s big match.
Zuma was on target for his German club Arminia Bielefed on Saturday and Mosimane will be hoping that his return will provide the goals for Bafana Bafana.
For the Zambians, the game this weekend provides them with a golden chance to open a five-point lead over their bitter rivals and beat them for the second time on the trot.
Chipolopolo beat Bafana Bafana 1-0 at the Nations Cup finals in Egypt to end a terrible campaign for the South Africans, who went back home empty-handed with no point nor goal to show for their efforts.
Both teams are under caretaker coaches with Mosimane giving way to Brazilian Carlos Alberto Perreira in January while about 20 coaches have applied to take over from Patrick Phiri as Zambia’s substantive coach.
Phiri has been doing his job quietly ‘ taking his team to the Cosafa Castle Cup final and a fine victory on the opening weekend of the Nations Cup qualifiers.
If he beats Bafana Bafana this weekend, then it would be very difficult for those running Zambian football to ignore him.
For the Zambians, this is more than just a mere football match ‘ it represents a golden opportunity for the nation to forget its recent past, where the citizens turned into enemies, and to start the job of building for a better nation.
After all, didn’t they say One Zambia, One Nation?