Ivory Coast, Senegal and Cameroon are big names exposed by a qualifying process squashed into eight months as the African federation switches its tournament to odd-numbered years
The qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations reach their climax this weekend. For 16 teams, the qualifiers also start this weekend. There surely can never have been a hastier, more flawed qualifying process for any tournament that presents itself as major.
The result is that Ivory Coast and Senegal will pay each other on Saturday and then again on 12 October and, whoever wins over the two legs goes through. Whoever loses is out. Neither side has played any qualifiers before now. Both qualified for the Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon earlier this year, beginning the tournament as first and third favourites. They've done nothing wrong; just been unlucky with the draw.
The reason is that the Confederation of African Football decided it didn't want its continental tournament happening in the same year as the World Cup. That perhaps is logical: it became annoyingly common for teams who had qualified for the World Cup to insist they were using the Cup of Nations as preparation rather than necessarily trying to win it (and then, of course, Nigeria would sack Shaibu Amodou for failing to win it; another of football's traditions cast into history). And, frankly, it looked a bit odd that Egypt kept winning the Cup of Nations having failed to qualify for the World Cup; it meant that the African nations often went to the World Cup with the sense of not even being the best on their own continent never mind being in a position to challenge to be the best in the world.
So the Cup of Nations was shifted from even-numbered years to odd-numbered years, starting with the tournament in South Africa next January (it was originally scheduled for Libya but the war there made that impossible; in theory Libya will now host the 2017 tournament).
That left eight months to fit in the qualifiers between the end of this year's tournament and the draw for next year's: the best solution CAF could find was to stage two knockout rounds with countries that had made it to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea getting a bye to the second round. Of course it might have been rather better, and would certainly have given the tournament rather more integrity, had there been a three-year gap to the next Cup of Nations with a proper qualifying competition. Money, of course, matters far more than integrity.
But there are other problems with the switch. For one thing, the tournament in 2015 in Morocco will clash with the Asian Cup in Australia. That's perhaps not a major concern, but for two confederations whose tournaments struggle for attention (and for the lucrative television markets of Europe and the Americas) it seems unhelpful for them to be fighting each other as well as indifference.
And for another, nobody has yet explained how CAF will squeeze a qualifying tournament between the end of the World Cup qualifiers in November 2013 and the draw in October 2014 when there's a World Cup to be played. Another blink-and-you'll-miss them series of knockouts seems most likely.
And that, of course, causes a new raft of problems because the shorter the qualifiers the more chance there is of weak sides fluking their way through and strong sides being bundled out because of one poor or unfortunate performance. When Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Algeria failed to qualify for the tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea it was refreshing but nobody wants the superpowers of the African game missing out on a regular basis. A tournament needs its stars: everybody wants to see the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Alex Song and Mohamed Aboutrika; and, no matter how badly they are playing, there is always a frisson when a team likes Nigeria takes to the field.
The good news, in the short term, is a series of sudden death qualifiers which might be an awful way to determine the make-up of a tournament but for the neutral are a lot of fun. The most eye-catching is that game between Ivory Coast and Senegal. This is likely to be Didier Drogba's last Cup of Nations and, as such, this represents the final chance for the Ivorian golden generation to at last win something. Twice, in 2006 and 2012, they've lost on penalties in the final; in 2008 they were hammered by an Amr Zaki-inspired Egypt in the semi and in 2010 they self-destructed improbably against Algeria in the last eight. This is a narrative epic that deserves a bravura finale, whether it ends in victory or defeat; it could easily, though, whimper away anticlimactically in Dakar next month.
The former Auxerre and Parma midfielder Sabri Lamouchi, mystifyingly appointed to replace François Zahoui following the last Cup of Nations despite having no frontline coaching experience, is well aware of the expectations. "I know I have no experience as a coach, but my whole life has been made of football since I was 20 years and this is helping me today in my new career as a coach," he said. "My objectives are very clear: to qualify the team for the 2013 Cup of Nations and do better than the previous edition, that is to say, win the title. This will help fans forget the pains from their team's narrow loss last February. It may be the last competition for this awesome generation and if the players are able to bring home the title it'd be a tremendous gift for the entire nation. We are working and we will win South Africa 2013."
He began with a 2-0 home win over Tanzania and a 2-2 draw in Morocco in World Cup qualifying before a 1-1 friendly draw against Russia.
If anything, Senegal's coaching situation is even more baffling that Ivory Coast's. Amara Traoré was ousted after a group-stage exit in the Cup of Nations despite vocal support from his players. He was supposed to be replaced by Pierre Lechantre, the French coach who led Cameroon to the Cup of Nations in 2000, but he failed to agree terms. Joseph Koto, the former coach of Jeanne d'Arc who led Senegal at the last CHAN (the tournament for domestic-based players), was appointed as interim manager and given a two-year permanent contract after leading Senegal to a win over Liberia and a draw in Uganda in World Cup qualifying.
Alan Pardew has already described the tie as "a massive game" for Newcastle and seems to favour losing Cheikh Tioté in January rather than Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé.
Cameroon will be without Eto'o for their trip to Cape Verde. The forward is available again after serving an eight-month ban for leading a players' protect against unpaid bonuses but rejected his recall citing "amateurism" and "bad management" within the Cameroonian federation. The midfielder Jean II Makoun spoke in support of Eto'o but it's unclear whether he will also refuse to join up with the squad. Denis Lavagne, another bewildering French appointment as coach, has called up Lionel Kwekeu of Sparta Prague to replace Eto'o.
Egypt are already out, having lost to Central African Republic, who face Burkina Faso, while the Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi has omitted Mikel John Obi and Peter Odemwingie from his squad to take on Liberia, saying they have shown insufficient interest in the national team. Algeria travel to Libya, Ethiopia host Sudan and Ghana, with Asamoah Gyan back in the fold, host Malawi. The champions, Zambia, face Uganda.