The ten-team line-up set for the final round of Africa’s 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification series would surprise few.
It includes nine of the 13 African sides that have made at least one appearance at the World Cup finals — 36 in all — with Mali, a rapidly rising force at all levels of international football on the continent, completing the roster that would soon be split up ahead of the play-offs in March next year.
And yet the list could have been really different, you know.
Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia were all favourites to progress, and they eventually did, but the race to the finish line wasn’t as straightforward as had been envisaged; the trio, for all their pedigree, were pursued all the way by three sides of much lower profile.
The heavyweights went into the final matchday armed with the knowledge that they’d have to avoid defeat if they were to stand no risk of being overtaken by the chasing pack. For Algeria and Nigeria, that meant a showdown with the very teams tearing at their heels, albeit in the comfort of their respective home territories.
Algeria, the reigning African champions, had cruised through all but one of their Group A fixtures. The exception was a 1-1 draw with Burkina Faso in Marrakesh; in the decisive reverse played last Tuesday, Djamel Belmadi’s side had on the line not just qualification, but also the longest current unbeaten run in international football (the fourth-longest of all time).
At the end of a breathless 2-2 stalemate, the Burkinabe fell agonisingly short of claiming the solitary ticket on offer and smashing Algeria’s proud 32-game record; only one more goal and they’d have been celebrating a quite stunning feat, but their hosts held on and proved just a little too strong.
Nigeria, too, could only muster a priceless draw when Cape Verde came to town and, although that was ultimately enough to take them through, the margins throughout the campaign were much closer than the two points which separated the two sides in the final reckoning.
Tunisia didn’t have to face their own pursuers, Equatorial Guinea — they had on the preceding matchday, actually, and lost — but the Carthage Eagles certainly felt the pressure to get a positive result against Zambia (a 3-1 victory, it turned out) to insulate themselves against the win the Equatoguineans sought away to Mauritania (but didn’t obtain, settling for a pointless draw).
Despite the disappointment of missing out, though, all three of Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea can be very proud of themselves, having come so unusually close to securing World Cup slots.
It wasn’t too long ago when none of those countries appeared at the 2019 Nations Cup, a tournament at which Algeria (first), Nigeria (third) and Tunisia (fourth) were pushing for places on the podium. In just over two years, however, they’ve transformed into formidable sides, and all three can channel that positive energy into the next edition of the AFCON, scheduled for January 2022, for which they’ve qualified.
Two of those, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde, will be in the same group as hosts Cameroon, while Equatorial Guinea rub shoulders with Algeria and Ivory Coast in Group E. They’d definitely be considered more of a threat than they were when the AFCON groups were first drawn in August 2021 — and rightly so, considering just how well they’ve done in the past two months.