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29 Dec 2008 07:51
South Africa face their biggest challenge since readmission to international football 16 years ago when they host the Fifa Confederations Cup next June.
The draw could not have been kinder to the struggling national team, who will be virtually assured of a semifinals place if they defeat Iraq and New Zealand in a group completed by Spain.
Failure to reach the knockout phase would be considered a disaster and place in doubt the future of Brazil-born national coach Joel Santana just 12 months before South Africa become the first African hosts of the World Cup.
South African spin doctors made much of friendly wins over second-string Malawi, Ghana and Cameroon late this year, but the failure to score in two competitive outings against minnows Sierra Leone is cause for deep concern.
Off the field, a nation barred from world football for decades because of apartheid needs a well-run tournament to dispel persistent doubts that they can organise the 32-team World Cup the following year.
Were major problems to occur at the eight-nation Confederations Cup, which traditionally attracts far fewer visitors than the World Cup, Fifa president Sepp Blatter would come under renewed pressure to consider his plan ‘B’.
The most powerful official in world football spread mid-year alarm among South Africans when he admitted there was such a plan and later admitted three countries were capable of taking over as hosts.
But Blatter later insisted only a natural catastrophe would prevent South Africa staging the quadrennial world football showpiece.
Fears have been raised about the safety of spectators in the crime-ridden country, and about a regular electricity supply after nationwide power cuts at the beginning of this year.
Transport has been another area of concern although the huge force at work widening roads and highways and creating bus-only lanes around Johannesburg bears testimony to a nation on a mission to silence critics.
Africa will have two Confederations Cup challengers for the first time with Egypt in a much tougher group beside defending champions Brazil, World Cup holders Italy and the United States.
Blatter was surely stretching optimism too far when saying this year that the Pharaohs could win the Confederations Cup, but the North Africans are set to improve on a first appearance that included a 5-1 hiding from Saudi Arabia.
Egypt coach Hassan Shehata has stressed that his first priority next year is qualification for the World Cup, a feat the six-time African champions last achieved 18 years ago.
Drawn with Algeria, Rwanda and Zambia in the final mini-league phase, the Egyptians should justify their top seeding, particularly if Shehata can mend differences with Germany-based striker Mohamed Zidan.
Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are the other countries seeded to reach South Africa with Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali and surprise packets Burkina Faso posed to punish any slips by the “big five”.
World Cup fixtures double as qualifiers for the 2010 African Nations Cup in Angola with the top three in each four-team group advancing to the three-week continental tournament six months before the world event.
While Europe-based strikers like Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor and Didier Drogba are set to dominate the World Cup-Nations Cup, local-based stars will get a slice of the international limelight for the first time.
Cote d’Ivoire plays hosts to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Libya, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe during February in the first African Nations Championship.
Restricted to footballers playing in their national league, the two-week tournament is sure to lure dozens of scouts from Europe as they seek the next generation of African stars.
Adebayor and Drogba are 2008 African Footballer of the Year finalists with Ghanaian Michael Essien and Egyptian duo Mohamed Aboutraika and Amr Zaki and the organisers will hope for a less controversial outcome than this year.
Mali striker Frederic Kanoute received the award after original first choice Drogba was disqualified because he refused to travel from hosts Ghana to Togo during the Nations Cup tournament for the awards ceremony.
Title holders Al-Ahly of Egypt will assume their perennial role of African Champions League favourites as they chase a record seventh title but with many of their stars in line for national duty, weariness could pose problems.
Tunisian club CS Sfaxien this year became the first club to successfully defend the second-tier African Confederation Cup and they are back again seeking a hat-trick in a field containing few big-name rivals. - AFP
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