World Cup: Homecomings, a wingless eagle and a country in prayer

Salah is pushing the Pharaohs to the World Cup. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

It is now two years to the kick off of the first finals to be hosted jointly by the USA, Mexico and Canada.

The countdown clock for the 2026 Fifa World Cup has started ticking after the preparations crossed the halfway mark this week.

It is now two years to the kick off of the first finals to be hosted jointly by the USA, Mexico and Canada.

Match day three and four of the African qualifiers left a mixed picture of the continent’s potential representatives.

Africa has at least nine slots in the expanded 48-team tournament, but the qualifying rounds remain a formidable challenge even for perennial big cats and birds of prey.

Results from the last ten days have disrupted any notions of dominance; the paradigm shift is real.

The African landscape has been a battleground where an Eagle has lost its flight, Rwanda's Amavubi made surprising strides, and even war-torn Sudan has found reasons to hope.

Unlike previous rounds, fans now have broader access to matches through national broadcasters or at least the Fifa TV Plus portal.

Homecoming parties

Fans in Uganda and South Sudan were overjoyed after their Cranes and Bright Stars returned from exile. Uganda’s Cranes returned to Namboole after five years with a slim 1-0 win over Botswana only to suffer a 2-1 defeat against Algeria. That comeback win for the Desert Foxes shattered Uganda’s decade-long unbeaten record at Namboole.

Algeria now leads Group E with nine points sharing the count with Mozambique who secured a double win over Somalia and Guinea. Botswana, Guinea and Uganda follow closely with six each.

Across the border, Fifa president Gianni Infantino, Cecafa president Wallace Karia and a number of dignitaries joined the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit in inaugurating the country’s newly-refurbished 7,500-seater Juba National Stadium on Tuesday.

Despite Bright Stars losing 3-0 to their northern neighbours Sudan in their home debut, the world’s youngest nation has an international facility to take pride in.

Fifa under their Forward Development programme financed the renovation to a tune of U$ 5.15m (approx. shs 19b).

Living in hope

Sudan’s 3-0 win sparked hope in a country desperate for positive news amidst a civil war.

Football has a history of providing motivating stories in such difficult times.

 One of them was written back then in October 2005 during the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. Cameroon led Group Three with 20 points as Ivory Coast trailed with 19.

While Cameroon hosted Egypt, the Ivoirians were in Libya needing a win a win and a favour from the Pharaohs.

Back at home, there was a civil war wreaking havoc with the country divided into two – the rebels in the north while Laurent Gbagbo’s army controlled the south.

Egypt did their part to pick a 1-1 draw while in Khartoum, Kanga Akale’s goal and a brace by former Portsmouth striker Aruna Dindane ensured the Elephants completed the job and debuted at the world stage.

That win united the country and ignited the process to end the war that culminated into a power-sharing Peace Agreement in 2007.

Sudan now leads its group that also has Senegal (8) and DR Congo (7) with ten points.

The hope is that this fairytale can spark a similar peace deal that a match at their own soil did 19 years ago to end the war that broke out in April last year.

With their domestic league and football suspended, the team has found refuge in Saudi Arabia, where they train and live.

“We’ve to travel to Libya for home games and don’t even know where Caf and Fifa will take our next fixtures,” Kwesi Appiah, Sudan’s head coach told regional website Soka25East on Monday.

The former Ghanaian international expressed hope that this win could inspire the country.

Congo case

While Sudan can’t access Khartoum pitches due to war, Congo faced their own struggles hosting Niger and Morocco.

The country had requested to host their games in Libreville but Fifa insisted on having the games at the Martyr’s Stadium on the other side of Congo River in Kinshasa.

Congolese media reported that their Minister of Sports, Hughes Nguilondile, announced the withdrawal of their team after that decision.

The match was postponed but their fixture against Morocco was hosted in North Africa at the backyard of their opponents. Morocco capitalized on the advantage in a 6-0 win to ascend the summit of Group E with nine points from three games.

Tanzania’s Taifa Stars under the tutelage of local coach Hemed Morocco follows with six after shocking Zambia to win 1-0 at the Levi Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola.

Junior Waziri’s decisive winner condemned former Chelsea, West Ham and Ghana Israeli coach Avram Grant to a third loss in four games.

Salah’s brilliance

Egypt’s Pharaohs continue their steady campaign, scrapping a 2-1 win over Burkina Faso in a 2-1 win at the Cairo International Stadium courtesy of Mahmoud Trezeguet’s brace.

However, they had to rely on Mohammed Salah’s brilliance to snatch a point from Guinea Bissau. Salah maneuvered past four defenders to score another of his signature goals.

Egypt remains atop Group A with ten points, four ahead of Guinea-Bissau in second place. Salah and Trezeguet took their tally to five each to lead the scorer’s chase.

Eagles grounded, Amavubi up

The biggest shock came from Nigeria’s lackluster performances in a 1-1 draw with South Africa in Uyo and a 2-1 defeat to Benin on a neutral ground.

The two results leave the Super Eagles stranded with three points from four games, raising doubts about their new coach George Finidi.

However, they don’t need a big miracle as Group C leaders Rwanda, Bafana Bafana and Benin are just four points ahead with six games to go.

Afcon top scorer scandal

Reigning African champions Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Tunisia maintained their leads in groups H, F and D after identical wins and a draw in the two respective match days.

Speaking about champions and Group D, Tunisia lead on 10 points while Namibia and Liberia, who cancelled out each other in a 1-all draw in Johannesburg, follow with eight and seven.

The two nations are beneficiaries of a Fifa ruling that stripped Equatorial Guinea their 1-0 victories over them in the first batch of games. Their match against Namibia was officiated by celebrated Ugandan referee Ali Sabila Chelangat.

Fifa, in a rare case, ruled that Afcon 2023 golden boot winner Emilio Nsue was ineligible to play for Equatorial Guinea despite representing them for 11 years!

The decision meant that the Guineans forfeited their two wins over Namibia and Liberia by a 3-0 score. Guineans now sit fifth with only three points.

The next set of qualifiers will return in March next year.