Monday, September 16, 2013

Rapid Analysis of CAF Round 3

At noon in the ancient Egyptian capital of Luxor, the Confederation of African Football drew lots for the third and final round of world cup qualifiers, to be played in November at various locations throughout the continent.

At five AM in the ancient Minnesota capital of St. Paul, I was trying to get a little more sleep before walking the dog, cleaning the kitchen and making my way to another day of work. Which means, of course, that I did not get an invite to attend the CAF unthoughtful.

Still I made time to find out who would be dueling in November, and as I am wont to do, I quickly dashed out some half-baked jokes and arrogant assumptions that I pretend is worth calling "analysis". Enjoy.

The draw is straight forward, the top 5 teams left are in one pot, the bottom 5 are in the other. One of the top 5 and one of the bottom 5 will face off in a head to head battle to the death...or to the bloody shins...or to the inevitable 3-0 awarded victory that FIFA is so fond of doling out in African football.

The top 5 are: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Nigeria, Tunisia*

The bottom 5 are: Egypt, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Ethiopia.

From a purely objective point it's easy to see best and worst case scenarios for teams in each group.

If you're part of the Top 5 you want Ethiopia (the rankest outsider left in the contest) or Egypt (home to tons of political/social instability, and you want to avoid Cameroon and Senegal.

If you're part of the Bottom 5 you want Tunisia (not immune to stunners) or Algeria (slightly overrated) but not Ivory Coast or Ghana (clearly the two powerhouses of African football at the moment)

*"But wait," I hear you say, "didn't Tunisia lose to Cape Verde, thereby providing us with a really interesting up-and-coming nation to talk about?" Oh, silly...of course not. The thrilling 2-0 victory by the Azores was actually a 3-0 defeat because Fernando Varela came back one match too early from his four match suspension after being unsportsmanlike to a referee back in March, in a match they lost 2-0 before winning is that possibly confusing?

(Actually Firdose Moonda does a great job of explaining the whole thing and the whole African rules fiasco on her ESPN FC blog)

So how did it shake out and who does it favor?

So here are our match ups

Cote d'Ivoire v. Senegal--Even with a strong west African nation like Senegal across the pitch from them, it's hard to pick against the Elephants of Ivory Coast. They may have underachieved on the global stage but they're still easily in charge on the continent.

Ethiopia v. Nigeria--The Walia dodged the biggest bullets in Ivory Coast and Ghana, but Nigeria is no easy opponent, having qualified for four of the past five world cups. Playing at home plays to Ethiopia's strengths and they have seen off other prestigious nations (like South Africa), but they'll still be underdogs.

Tunisia v. Cameroon--Congrats to the Eagles of Carthage for surviving the mine field of regulations that felled Sierra Leone, Equitorial Guinea and Cape Verde. Now their reward is Cameroon, the sneakiest and arguably most dangerous of the unseeded teams. Given Tunisia's inability to defend home turf against Cape Verde, doing it agains the Indomitable Lions may be a little too tough.

Egypt (R) v.s. Ghana (L)
Ghana v. Egypt--I was about to say that this match would see the Mega Powers collide, and then I remembered that that was the title for the epic Randy Savage/Hulk Hogan battle back in the WWFs 80 glory days. Still, the parallels are eerie. You have Egypt, the long standing stalwart of African football who has been consigned to the background of late due, and you have the shooting star of Ghana whose high-flying aerial act is exciting and has won its own legion of fans. The only difference is that Asamoah Gyan and Amr Zakiri are unlikely to be tag-team champions anytime soon, and that the two countries have almost always been rivals, rather than gearing up for a more recent blood feud.

Though Egypt had an easier time of qualifying than Ghana did, Ghana does have political stability and fewer concerns about the safety of their fans than Egypt does. How it turns out will depend largely on who Ghana fields (probably their best) and what lessons Bob Bradley has learned since his last defeat at the feet of the Black Stars (probably not enough to swing the balance).

Burkina Faso v. Algeria--If there's hope for another African debutante at the Brazilian mondiale, it's got to be Burkina Faso. They are higher rated, they have their first match at home to build up a lead, they're facing a far less experienced side in Algeria. It would be a great victory to head to Brazil and it's absolutely within their reach.

So, dull as it is, I'm going to talk almost entirely chalk in this round with Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso winning as would be expected, and only Cameroon springing an upset (if you can really call it that). Sure I'll be rooting for Ethiopia--more on that to come--but for now it looks like the powerful will stay that way, at least in Africa.

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