Minnows Central African Republic share spotlight with giants Morocco

Star-stacked Morocco and minnows Central African Republic (C.A.R.) are 111 places apart in the world rankings, but they will share the Africa Cup of Nations matchday five qualifying limelight this week.

While Morocco visit South Africa for a first competitive outing since their 2022 World Cup heroics, C.A.R. hope to beat Angola and reach the African finals for the first time.

Last December in Qatar, Morocco became the first African or Arab semi-finalists in the World Cup with a stunning group win over Belgium followed by knockout triumphs against Spain and Portugal.

But since losing out to Croatia for third place, the Atlas Lions have not had a competitive fixture because scheduled Cup of Nations opponents Zimbabwe were banned by FIFA.

Although Morocco and South Africa have secured the two Group K qualifying places at the expense of Liberia, the match in Johannesburg has triggered huge interest.

Soccer City stadium officials are predicting a 50,000 crowd after supporters reacted positively to the ticket price being reduced from 50 rand ($2.70/2.50 euros) to 20.

Playing in front of a large crowd will mark a welcome change for Bafana Bafana, whose lacklustre displays in recent years have led to dwindling support.

Qatar heroes like goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, defender Achraf Hakimi, midfielder Hakim Ziyech and forward Youssef en-Nesyri have been called up by Morocco coach Walid Regragui.

While these stars operate in top European leagues, no South African featured in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga last season.

Forward Lyle Foster, a scorer when South Africa fell 2-1 in Morocco last year, has joined promoted Burnley and is set to play in the English top flight next season.

The Cup of Nations is 67 years old, but 10 countries, including C.A.R., have yet to qualify for the tournament.

– Notable scalps –

C.A.R. came close to making a breakthrough in the 2021 qualifying competition, losing at home to Mauritania in a winners-take-all showdown.

The ‘Wild Beasts’ boast some notable scalps in qualifiers, including Algeria and Egypt, and a win over Angola would secure a first finals appearance.

A national stadium in Bangui that does not meet international standards has forced the minnows to host matches at neutral venues with Cameroon port city Douala staging the Angola match.

Swiss Raoul Savoy is in his third stint as coach of the ‘Beasts’ and the best known of the 24 players he chose for the Group E game is Atletico Madrid midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia.

Louis Mafouta, a French second division forward, has netted four goals in qualifiers, one less than chart-toppers Sadio Mane of Senegal and Victor Osimhen of Nigeria.

C.A.R. are among 14 teams who could qualify in matchday five, which would raise the overall total to 21 and leave just three spots up for grabs in the final round during September.

A draw away to Sierra Leone will ensure qualification for Nigeria from Group A, and victory in Madagascar would guarantee Group E leaders Ghana a place.

Record seven-time champions Egypt meet Guinea in Group D and both nations will qualify should the match be drawn.

Shock 2012 champions Zambia can end a three-tournament absence by avoiding defeat at home to the Ivory Coast, automatic qualifiers as hosts but competing in Group H to gain match practice.

Out-of-favour Chelsea forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been lured out of international retirement by Gabon president Ali Bongo Ondimba for a key Group I clash with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nine sides must use neutral venues because they lack international-quality stadiums, a civil war has forced Sudan to play Mauritania in Morocco, and Sao Tome e Principe have conceded home advantage to Guinea-Bissau.

There will be three qualifiers on Wednesday, starting with South Sudan against the Gambia in Egypt, seven on Saturday, nine on Sunday and three next Tuesday.



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