Egypt successfully protested the ‘special ranking’ procedure employed by FIFA to determine the seeds for Africa’s final qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup. Owing to this, a new ‘special ranking’ will be released tomorrow ahead of Friday’s draw of the home stretch for the World Cup qualification series in Africa.
The Egyptians who were placed in Pot 2 instead of Pot 1 protested that the FIFA “special ranking” was a continuation of the stench of corruption that demystified FIFA.
They claimed it violated page 5 of FIFA’s “2018 FIFA World Cup Preliminary Competition Format & Procedures – African Zone”.
You may ask, what is so special about ranking, especially when a team is good enough to face any opposition? Well, the last stage of the qualifying series is a delicate one, offering no second chance for any team. A miss is as good as a mile.
Hence, despite your pedigree, you still look for oppositions that offer the least resistance. In years past, the Super Eagles would have been easily among the top seeds, if not the very top seed.
Such rating gives an edge as top teams are grouped with weaker ones to ensure that the final competition has a field of the best teams from each continent.
You can then understand the desperation of the Egyptians. Despite their stature on the African fields as the most successful in the Africa Cup of Nations and also the first African side to contest in the World Cup, they are, paradoxically, Lilliputians in the World Cup.
For the records, Egypt, the second oldest football association in Africa, having been founded in 1921, has been to the World Cup only twice! Incidentally, both occasions were in Italy in 1934 and 1990 – a space of 56 years!
They may have to stay away till the year 2046 or when next the World Cup is holding in Italy.
Egypt which by regular ranking should have been in Pot 1 was edged into Pot 2 by Tunisia, the sole beneficiary of the special ranking. For this, Egypt cried ‘foul’ alleging that the procedure was a continuation of the corruption that had riddled FIFA in the past few months.
It also claimed that Tunisia had always found a way of arms twisting FIFA to get favoured in the World Cup. The case cited was the ousting of Cape Verde in the last lap of the qualification for Brazil 2014.
As a reminder, Cape Verde topped its 2014 World Cup qualifying group after winning 2-0 against Tunisia in Tunis but was found to have fielded a player who should had been serving a four-match ban. The result was upturned in favour of Tunisia.
When new pots are opened tomorrow, it is obvious the only change to be seen will be the swapping of positions by Egypt and Tunisia.
Unlike the NFF which was adversely affected by an inclusion of a clause that was originally not in Africa Nations Cup 2017 qualifying series’ regulations, the Egyptian FA threatened to take its case to the Court of Arbitration in Sports (CAS).
But by and large, the opponents Nigeria may likely draw on Friday will be familiar ones in its World Cup qualifying history.
If one may borrow a phrase from former President Ibrahim Babangida who in the early 1990s remarked: “We don’t know who will succeed us, but we know those who will not”, one can boldly say we don’t know who will play against us, but we know those who will not.
What is clear is that the Super Eagles will not face Cape Verde, DR Congo, Mali and possibly Tunisia which may replace Egypt in Port 2. That way, the Super Eagles and the Pharaohs of Egypt may still have unfinished battle at hand.
Even though it may be a complex permutation, Nigeria faces one of the quintet of Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal and possibly Egypt, if the latter is placed in Pot 1 as envisaged.
Of the five, Senegal is the most appealing to the Super Eagles. It is also the only team in Pot 1 that Nigeria has never faced in a World Cup qualifier. All the teams in Pot 3 are familiar World Cup foes for Nigeria.
At one time or the other, Nigeria have in the qualifying series met Cameroon (1970, 1990), Morocco (1970), Guinea (1982, 1998), South Africa (1994 and partly 2010 in the first phase which combined with Afcon qualifiers) and Congo (1972 , 1994).
In this pot, South Africa will be the soft ‘choice’ for Nigeria. The South Africans, even though denied Nigeria the chance to 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, have never beaten Nigeria in a competitive duel.
Cameroon has always been a hard nut to crack, eliminating Nigeria from Italia ’90 race and alongside with Senegal, has been the most successful African team in the World Cup.
Nigeria however edged out Cameroon from the Mexico 1970 race. Morocco, like most North African countries, can be slippery. It edged Nigeria out of the triangular final qualifying league for the 1970 finals.
In 18 past encounters with Morocco, Nigeria lost eight times and won six, drawing four times. In the FIFA ranking, Nigeria is just a step ahead of Morocco which lost just one in its seven last matches.
Thirty years ago, Morocco became the first African side to cross the group stage after a 3-1 defeat of Portugal at the Mexico ’86 World Cup.
Congo is another unpredictable outfit. The Congolese became the first country to beat Nigeria in a competitive duel at home in 33 years following the Super Eagles’ 2-3 crumbling in Calabar two years ago.
Nigeria rarely had World Cup encounters with teams in Pot 4. They are the least ranked of the 20 teams jostling for the five World Cup slots.
Burkina Faso (1998) and Gabon (1990 and 2006) are the only teams that Nigeria has had World Cup encounters with.
Uganda and Zambia only met Nigeria in Africa Cup of Nations duels. Libya had only two encounters with the Super Eagles in the past. Both were at the realms of non-competitive ties in 2004 (LG Cup) and a friendly tie in 2005 when Mikel Obi made his debut.
Either Uganda or Libya will be appealing to Nigeria. What will one consider a very favourable draw for Nigeria? Your guess is as good as mine. But I will be delighted to have Senegal, South Africa and Uganda grouped with Nigeria. Will this happen? We wait till Friday.