Skewed priorities on the road to 2018 for African soccer
The road to Russia for African nations is a relatively short one with just eight matches needed for a place at the 2018 World Cup finals.
A lack of dates available on an overcrowded calendar, caused by the folly of switching the hosting of the African Nations Cup finals from every even to every odd year, means that there is a smaller window of opportunity to host the preliminary competition and, as a result, Africa has to swiftly whittle down the number of competitors.
That means qualifying for this World Cup takes an altered format, with just two knockout rounds. This in effect reduces the African entry from 54 nations to 20 in the space of two months.
It is a contradiction of the development role that the tournament is supposed to fulfil and in stark contrast with other regions, where every country gets to play a full qualifying campaign and gains valuable experience irrespective of results.
South Africa enter the 2018 World Cup qualifiers at the second stage and have been drawn against Angola in their knockout round tie.
The first leg is Friday afternoon November 13 in Benguela, Angola, and the return match in Durban on Tuesday November 17 – and for one of these countries, both of which have been to a World Cup in the past, the campaign will be over in the matter of just five days.
That San Marino, the tiny republic in northern Italy with a population of just 30 000, gets to play 10 World Cup qualifiers between September next year and October 2017 shows how skewed priorities are.
South Africa should get through to the next round, which will see the surviving 20 African teams divided into five groups of four, playing six matches from September 2016 to October 2017. The five group winners then go on to Russia.
South Africa have a good record against Angola, who despite the vast improvement in the standard of their domestic league and a flurry of oil money into their domestic game, are still a middleweight contender on the African scene.
They did go to the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, edging Nigeria in a shock result in their qualifying group that had as much to do with their prowess as it had with the foibles and self-destructive nature of the Nigerian team.
The Angolan side lacks the individual flair of the 2006 generation and has no outstanding performer.
Top striker Manucho Goncalves, briefly of Manchester United and now in Spain, has fallen out with the federation and is no longer selected, leaving a motley collection with just six foreign-based players in their squad.
Angola embarked on an intensive search several years ago for players of Angolan heritage in Europe, where those with links to the country are plentiful after years of migration by those fleeing the post-independence civil war that retarded the country’s development for decades.
The children of the diaspora offered the potential of some rich pickings, exemplified by Nando Rafael, an exciting refugee talent who had fled to Amsterdam as a child and grew up in the Ajax academy – but when the Dutch came around to picking him for their national team, they found he was illegal and could not obtain citizenship.
Rafael went to Germany instead, playing in the Bundesliga, but once it was obvious he would not play for their national team, he opted to play for Angola instead. But by the time he debuted for Angola he had lost the aura of a teenage prodigy and struggled to find form. Nonetheless, he was symbolic of other potential Angola believed they could discover.
It has meant a steady stream of European-born players of Angolan heritage being selected for the national side over the past years, not only from the old colonial power, Portugal, but also from Belgium and Switzerland in particular, some of whom have won junior international caps for those countries.
But none have really looked worth the bother and, although six have been called up for the two-legged tie against Bafana, they are players from clubs in the Belgian second division and the third tier of English football.
South Africa need worry little about them but rather about their own performance, which is still painfully poor in the finishing department and often jagged at the back.
In the humidity of Benguela next week, they will find conditions not unlike those in Durban. The objective should be to keep the defence solid, pack the midfield and look for counterattacking opportunities to ensure they return home with a positive result, taking that platform and securing the aggregate win in front of home fans at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Tuesday.
But it is never simple with South Africa, who despairingly are so often the masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.