Qualifiers continue as doubts loom over Afcon

Defending champions Nigeria are battling out the qualifiers for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations despite the possibility of the tournament happening being slim. (AFP)

Defending champions Nigeria are battling out the qualifiers for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations despite the possibility of the tournament happening being slim. (AFP)

Preparations for potentially vital Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifiers continued to pick up pace at the start of the week despite the fact the 2015 finals may not even take place, rendering the last two rounds of preliminaries meaningless.

Teams face a key set of matches in the penultimate round of qualifiers on Friday and Saturday, and complete the process next week as 15 finalists will be determined by the group standings.

Algeria and the Cape Verde Islands have already secured their berths.

A total of 28 teams are chasing spots at the January tournament, which is almost certain to be taken away from Morocco and either moved to a new venue or cancelled completely when the Confederation of African Football (CAF) decide on the matter in the coming days.

Morocco wants a postponement of the finals to a later date because of fears over the spread of the Ebola virus, but CAF are refusing to budge on the January 17 to February 8 timetable.

Their executive committee, meeting in Cairo, will determine what happens to the 2015 finals.

The decision would arrive before the weekend qualifiers but all games were going ahead irrespective of the outcome, officials confirmed on Tuesday.

It is just whether they will have any meaning by the time they kick off on Friday that remains to be seen.

Heavyweights battle it out
Defending champions Nigeria and other heavyweights such as Egypt, the Côte d’Ivoire and 2012 winners Zambia face a watershed weekend in their battle to stay in contention to make the final field.

Nigeria have coach Stephen Keshi back after uncertainty over his future, while the Côte d’Ivoire have turned to veteran talent to try and revive their hopes.

But former captain Didier Zokora, recalled despite announcing his international retirement in August, has turned down a surprise call-up for the matches in Abidjan against Sierra Leone and Cameroon.

Egypt have an injury depleted squad as they need to beat Senegal in Cairo on Saturday and Tunisia away next week.

Zambia have purged much of the squad that won them the continental title in 2012 as they have struggled to get going in their group.

Most squads assembled on Monday as a large chunk of players travelled south after weekend club commitments at their European clubs.

Morocco rejects ultimatum
It was reported on Sunday that a late replacement must be found to host tournament or it faces being called off after Morocco rejected an ultimatum to go ahead with the event in January.

CAF refused to entertain a change of dates and must now find an alternate host as quickly as possible or face annulling the event at great financial cost.

The federation has approached other African countries to step in as an emergency replacement but have so far received no public expressions of support.

A meeting of African football’s governing body in Cairo on Tuesday now faces the prospect of having to cancel their gala event, unless they have a solution in their back pocket.

“We will not be making any statements until after the meeting makes a final decision,” CAF media director Junior Binyam told Reuters.

A risky gamble to call Morocco’s bluff looked to have backfired on Saturday as the country’s sport minister repeated a fear the tournament could spread Ebola.

“This decision is motivated mainly by the medical risks that would put this virus on the health of our fellow Africans,” Mohamed Ouzzine said in a statement.

In addition to health concerns, the statement said, Morocco’s decision was also “motivated by humanitarian reasons since it is our responsibility to welcome all guests and supporters in the best conditions in accordance with the culture and hospitality of Moroccan traditions”.

Tourism industry
Morocco is concerned that supporters from West Africa converging on the country for the tournament could bring with them the deadly virus and put at risk their important tourist industry.

Global health authorities are struggling to contain the world’s worst Ebola outbreak since the disease was identified in 1976 and cases have reached as far as the United States and Spain.

Morocco also insisted they could host the tournament later, highlighting that CAF had back-to-back Afcon tournaments in 2012 and 2013 when it switched from hosting the event in even to odd years and could reverse the process in 2016 and 2017.

CAF, who garner the majority of their revenue from the tournament’s television and marketing rights, have cited a packed calendar for their refusal to consider a June date or a move to early 2016.

They also characterised Morocco’s concerns as alarmist, pointing out that Afcon tournaments do not attract large traveling support because few African fans had the resources to follow their teams.

The impasse looks likely to deprive Africa of a much-anticipated event that is regularly able to capture the imagination of millions.

South Africa in October rejected hosting the tournament, saying it is not ready to host if Morocco withdraws.

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said: “Even before taking the matter to cabinet, I can tell you unambiguously and categorically that hosting is a no no.

“We do not have a ready-made abundance of resources to be shifted to Afcon. We did it [in 2013] in solidarity with Libya last year. 

“Our budget cycle will not allow us to host the [2015] Afcon. It is totally impossible.
We would like to give this one a pass.” – Reuters, Staff reporter

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