Africa's qualifying race down to 20 by Sunday

JOHANNESBURG – The race to decide Africa's representatives at the 2010 World Cup will be whittled down to 20 teams this weekend, setting up a potentially thrilling final qualification phase next year.

Benin, Cameroon and Nigeria are already through to the draw in Zurich later this month where the final 20 candidates will be divided into five groups.

But the other 17 qualifiers will be only be determined after the 22 scheduled matches on Saturday and Sunday.

Zimbabwe’s warriors arrived in Namibia yesterday for their final 2010 World Cup/Nations Cup Group Two qualifier hoping that the gods of football will throw one final dramatic twist to keep alive a campaign that now appears to have faded into a nightmare.

Valinhos and his men — their spirits battered by a series of indifferent results — touched down at the Hosea Kotako International Airport at about 3:30pm yesterday aboard a South African Airways flight they connected in Johannesburg.

Morale was clearly low among the players and the technical team — a sharp contrast to the bubbling group that arrived in Conakry, Guinea, at the beginning of these qualifiers and stole a point from the Syli Nationale.

That goalless draw in Conakry appeared to suggest that this group of Warriors and their coach could go all the way and qualify for the second and final phase of the qualifying campaign.

When they followed up that draw with a 2-0 win over Namibia at home, courtesy of a double strike from Gilbert Mushangazhike, everything appeared to be pointing in the right direction for this team and its Brazilian coach.

But then things began to fall apart.

The game against Namibia marked the first time, and the last time, that the Warriors would score in this campaign and a 0-2 defeat in Kenya was followed up by a lifeless display in a goalless home draw against the Harambee Stars.

Then Guinea came to Harare and, once again, the Warriors fired blanks in yet another goalless draw and, having picked up four points from their first two matches, Valinhos and his men only took home two points from their next three games.

The likes of Burkina Faso, Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Morocco and Tunisia are almost certain to progress but 2006 World Cup finalists Angola, Ghana and Togo do not have the same surety.

Togo, whose Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor has launched a one-man boycott of the national team after a row over travel arrangements, are particularly vulnerable to early elimination.

Even if they beat lowly Swaziland in Accra on Saturday, they face missing out on the final phase of the qualifiers.

Adebayor sits out a second successive match after walking out on the eve of last month’s game in Zambia when his call to meet the Togo Football Federation president went unheeded.

"Our last game was very important so I told the federation that if they really wanted this victory our big boss must come as well," Adebayor told The Daily Telegraph last week.

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"If we were going to win, it had to be together. If we lose, we lose together. If the plane must crash, at least we all die together. That’s what I meant.

"But the president still wouldn’t come so I preferred to come back to London to play for a team who showed they needed me," he added in the interview.

Togo’s problems have opened the door for Swaziland to emerge as the Cinderella team of the campaign to date.

The tiny southern African kingdom will top Group 11 if they win the match, which is being played in Ghana because of a ban on internationals in Togo after home fans attacked Mali players a year ago following a Nations Cup qualifying defeat in Lome.

"We are going there for a kill," Swaziland’s key midfielder Denis Masina told Reuters. "We have to come away with a win, there is so much expectation back home."

Ghana could feature in a three-way tie at the top of Group Five and effectively need a deluge of goals to keep up their qualifying chances but go into Saturday’s match against Lesotho in Sekondi without the injured Asamoah Gyan and Michael Essien.

Angola must beat Niger in their Group Three match in Luanda on Sunday to have any hope of qualifying just a week after coach Luis Oliveira Goncalves surprisingly quit.

The 12 group winners plus eight best runners-up go through to the final phase. Africa will have six teams at the World Cup finals including hosts South Africa. Reuters