2019 AFCON draw . . .
> Robson Sharuko
HARARE- HAVING provided only one representative in Gabon, Southern Africa will be hoping to flex its football muscles with more countries at the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals in Cameroon.
It will, however, not be smooth sailing for regional heavyweights South Africa and Zambia, who face tough battles in their bid to return to the showcase.
Zimbabwe are the only southern African country at the 2017 Nations Cup finals with both Bafana Bafana and Chipolopolo, who have won the tournament in the past, falling by the wayside in the qualifying battles.
The Warriors dominated their qualifying group, knocking out Malawi and Swaziland along the way, even though Sihlangu showed how much they have improved, in recent years, by beating continental heavyweights Guinea, home and away, in a group the high-flying Zimbabweans won with a game to spare.
To show that their qualification for Gabon was no fluke, the Warriors turned on the style in their first Group B game against powerhouse Algeria and came within eight minutes of providing the first shock of the tournament, as they led 2-1 before African Footballer of the Year, Riyad Mhrez, struck a late equaliser for the Desert Foxes.
Khama Billiat turned on an irresistible show for the Zimbabweans and was unlucky not to score.
The 26-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns’ star was virtually unplayable, showing why he is widely regarded, and had a superb volley touched onto the post by the Algerian ‘keeper Rais M’Bolhi, who then went on to produce a world-class save in the second half to deny the Zimbabwean star, after Billiat had danced his way past the Algerian defence.
Ghanaian football legend, Sammy Kuffour, who won the UEFA Champions League crown with German giants Bayern Munich and is now a pundit for SuperSport, was so charmed by Billiat that he told viewers of the pay-per-view television sports channel he believes the Zimbabwean forward should now pack his bags and play in Europe.
“It would be very disappointing for Africa not to see him playing here. But, in terms of his career, and what he can do at 26 years, you have to move him to Europe,” said Kuffour.
“He is amazing to watch. For me, being a defender, it would be very difficult to play against this boy. He is small and you don’t know what he is going to do. He is so quick with the ball; he has everything.
“For me, I would love to see him go outside for his future.”
Zimbabwe, who are making a return to the AFCON finals after an 11-year absence, will battle the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville and Liberia for a place at the 2019 Nations Cup finals in Cameroon.
“I’m one person who wants to play first Pasuwa said. “Remember the DRC is one of the teams that have been climbing on FIFA rankings; they are well-sponsored and serious in how they have been doing their things.
“Football is improving everywhere and you saw how Swaziland did in the recent qualifiers, they did well. Liberia, like Zimbabwe, you can’t underrate them. If they do their things correctly they will be the surprise package of the group.”
Bafana Bafana, who are looking for a new coach after parting ways with Shakes Mashaba recently over a disciplinary issue, have under-performed badly when it comes to the Nations Cup finals after setting the stage alight in the ‘90s when they won the tournament on home soil in ‘96 and finished second in Burkina Faso two years later.
They will not have an easy run, in the battle to qualify for the 2019 Nations Cup finals, after they were placed in a tough group that will feature a Nigerian side desperate to make up amends for missing the festival in Gabon and who, in Alex Iwobi and Ikelechi Iheanacho, have two of the most promising young footballers on the continent.
Iwobi is a regular for English Premiership giants Arsenal while Iheanacho plays for Manchester City.
Libya and lightweights, the Seychelles, make up that group.
South African Football Association president, Danny Jordaan, believes Bafana Bafana would beat the Super Eagles for a place in Cameroon.
“It’s a reality of sport that you can get a tough draw, but I think we have shown over the last few matches that we are equal to Nigeria and that we have a good chance,” Jordaan said.
“It’s going to be tough to juggle the two competitions (the 2019 AFCON qualifiers and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers) at the same time, but I think strangely the teams playing in this Nations Cup in Gabon will have an additional burden with a hectic programme for the year.”
The SAFA boss also expects his team to have a substantive coach by the time they get the ball rolling against Libya.
“As promised, the association will convene a meeting of the SAFA Technical Committee to discuss the search for a new head coach. The meeting will develop proposed principles of engagement for a new head coach, including defining an updated mandate and other requirements for presentation to the SAFA National Executive Committee,” a statement from SAFA said.
Zambia have been presented with a chance to make amends for the humiliation of being knocked out of the 2017 AFCON qualifiers by underdogs Guinea-Bissau by meeting the tiny West African nation again in the battles for a place at the 2019 Nations Cup finals.
The Portuguese-speaking nation caused one of the biggest upsets of the 2017 AFCON qualifiers by beating Chipolopolo in the race for a ticket in Gabon, thanks largely to the recruitment of a number of players who play in the lower leagues of Portugal.
They held Zambia to a goalless draw in Ndola and then beat Chipolopolo 3-s in Bissau.
“Looking forward to face them, it’s going to be revenge they spoiled our party,” Zambian forward Collins Mbesuma said.
“The draw is a nice one but, there are no underdogs these days in football each and every team is tough.”
Two Southern African nations, Namibia and Mozambique, are part of Group K and if Guinea-Bissau qualify, it could mean that three countries from this region would not be in a Cameroon just from one group.
“Zambia are still a powerhouse in Africa but looking at our results in the past two years, we have done well as we won more than twice, which was never the case in the past,” Namibia coach Ricardo Manetti told reporters in Namibia.
“They used to roll all over us. Huge improvement for us and it gives me hope.”
l Group A: Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Sao Tome or Madagascar;
l Group B: Cameroon, Morocco, Malawi, Comoros or Mauritius;
l Group C: Mali, Gabon, Burundi, Djibouti or South Sudan;
l Group D: Algeria, Togo, Benin, Gambia;
l Group E: Nigeria, South Africa, Libya, Seychelles;
l Group F: Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sierra Leone;
l Group G: Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Zimbabwe, Liberia;
l Group H: Ivory Coast, Guinea, Central African Republic, Rwanda;
l Group I: Burkina Faso, Angola, Botswana, Mauritania;
l Group J: Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Swaziland;
l Group K: Zambia, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia;
l Group L: Cape Verde, Uganda, Tanzania, Lesotho.