You can tell a World Cup is approaching because Kevin Prince-Boateng has suddenly decided he feels like playing international football again. The attacking midfielder retired from international football in 2011, but has ended his exile to come into the Ghana squad for Friday's final World Cup qualifier in which Ghana need only to avoid defeat against Zambia to secure a place in the play-off round for World Cup qualifying.

The structure of the African preliminaries may be nonsensical, but they do guarantee drama: 10 groups of four, with the top sides going forward to two-leg play-offs, with the winners going on to Brazil.

Algeria, Egypt and Ivory Coast are already assured of places in the play-offs, which will be seeded according to September's world rankings; Egypt may just miss out on being one of the top-five sides, which could prove a nasty shock for one of the continental grandees.

Ghana are sure to be seeded if they make it through, and their squad looks stronger than it has for a while, with Dede Ayew back after his strop at being disciplined for arriving late for a medical assessment (itself seeming a hangover from a dispute over Ayew being substituted in a game last year) and Michael Essien finally declaring himself fit.

Sulley Muntari has been omitted after failing to apologise in time for verbally abusing the coach Kwesi Appiah after being substituted in the 2-0 win over Lesotho.

The only question is whether Appiah has undermined his attempts to impose discipline on the squad by essentially offering an amnesty, but it probably makes sense to offer some leeway now so he can work with his best players in the play-offs and ideally next summer. Certainly this side, even if some tensions remain, should be good enough to overcome a Zambia side that has faded badly since winning the Cup of Nations in Gabon last year. Indeed, if it weren't for Sudan fielding an ineligible player against them in Omdurman, and so having their 2-0 win chalked off and replaced by a 3-0 defeat, Zambia would already be out.

Sudan are not alone in playing ineligible players. Absurdly, seven games in African qualifying have been awarded as walkovers for use of an ineligible player, a dreadful indictment of football administration within various CAF members. African football faces enormous challenges in terms of finances and infrastructure, but it also at times lets itself down badly with issues of basic competence.

South Africa have been given a lifeline by Ethiopia allowing the suspended Minyahil Teshome to play against Botswana. Ethiopia won the game, which eliminated South Africa, only for the error to be seen and the match awarded to Botswana. That means that if South Africa beat Botswana at home, they will qualify ahead of Ethiopia if the Ethiopians, whose raucous fans were one of the highlights of this year's Cup of Nations, failed to beat Central African Republic, in a game being played in Brazzaville because of the political unrest in Bangui.

CAR have lost four in a row and are bottom of the group, but Ethiopia are without (or at least should be without) the goalkeeper Jemal Tassew and the defender Aynalem Hailu through suspension.

That is fortunate for South Africa, who tossed away needless points in drawing in Botswana having looked in control and were then well-beaten in Addis Ababa in a bad-tempered game in June, but there luck is nothing to that of Cape Verde. They lost twice to Equatorial Guinea in the space of three months, only to be awarded both games as 3-0 wins after it was noticed that Emilio Nsue, who was born in Spain of an Equatoguinean father, had played in both fixtures, Fifa ruling he was ineligible. That means that, improbably, Cape Verde will leapfrog Tunisia to top the group if they can beat the Carthage Eagles in Rades on Saturday.

The other big controversy surrounds Cameroon, who were only readmitted to the tournament in July after the appointment of a normalisation committee to deal with the issue of government interference in the federation. With Jean-Paul Akono, who had been installed as temporary manager, suffering a heart attack, the German Volker Finke was appointed sooner than expected and, as yet, has failed to win any of his three games in charge. Or at least it appeared that way, until another ineligible player intervened and it turned out Cameroon had beaten Togo 3-0 after all. A draw at home against Libya will secure Cameroon's place in the play-offs; lose and Libya progress instead.

The African champions, Nigeria, also require a home draw if they are to go through. They remain unbeaten in qualifying, but have drawn three of their five games and would be eliminated were Malawi to win in Calabar. Senegal are in much the same position. They face Uganda in their final game, needing a draw to progress, while the Cranes would go through with a win in a match being played in Marrakech because of the rioting that accompanied Senegal's defeat to Ivory Coast in the play-offs for Cup of Nations qualification.

That leaves just Group E, in which three sides are still in contention. Congo, having won their first three games before taking a single point from their last two, will progress with a win in Niger, who have been eliminated, but they lead Burkina Faso, finalists in the Cup of Nations in February, by just a point and Gabon by three.

They meet in Ouagadougou, although it would take a four-goal swing for Gabon to make it through.

And when that's settled, the fun really begins with next month's play-offs.