2018 African Nations Championship (CHAN) qualification explained
The qualifiers for the 2018 African Nations Championship (CHAN) got underway this past weekend; the start of a not-so-long road to the finals in Kenya from January 11-February 2 next year.
The competition, open only to players who ply their trade in their domestic leagues, is scheduled in the years between the African Nations Cup and, despite the matches having restriction on selection, are considered full FIFA internationals, giving it a hint of gravitas.
First played in 2009, when only 36 of the Confederation of African Football's (CAF) 52 member states entered - some with Under-20, Under-23 and lower league player selections - the tournament has grown in stature since and is viewed in a more serious light these days.
For this year's qualification 48 nations have entered, with the only notable absentees being former champions Tunisia and Cape Verde Islands.
The campaign to reach Kenya started this past weekend, but gets underway in earnest in July. Qualification takes place on a regional basis, ensuring that every segment of the African continent is represented.
North Africa has two qualification places in the finals, West Africa five, Central Africa three, East Africa two and Southern Africa three. Hosts Kenya will be the 16th team in the field.
South Sudan took control of their tie as they edged Somalia 2-1 away from home in the first leg of their East African Zone qualification campaign. The match took place in Djibouti as Somalia is unable to host games in the country due to domestic instability.
James Moga and Khamis Leon netted for the Sudanese, while Abbas Amin scored what looks like it might be a consolation for Somalia. The return game is to be played in Juba on Sunday.
It would be a major surprise were the Somalis to turn around the tie, with Uganda waiting for the winners in the next round in July.
Other confirmed second round fixtures in the Central Zone see Tanzania take on Rwanda, Djibouti play Ethiopia, and Burundi tackle Sudan.
There were also two first round qualifiers in the Southern Zone played this past weekend.
Madagascar edged to a 1-0 home victory over Malawi, but now face a daunting trip away to Lilongwe to finish the job on Saturday.
Morelin Raveloarisona scored the only goal of the game with four minutes remaining on the clock.
Mauritius gained a 2-1 home win over fellow islanders Seychelles, but will know there is plenty more work to be done in the return. Emmanuel Vincent Jean and Francis Rasolofonirina had Mauritius 2-0 up, but Manoo Yannick Dominique netted 12 minutes from time for what could still be a crucial away goal for the Seychelles.
Mozambique await the winners of Madagascar/Malawi in the next round, while Angola will take on the victor between Mauritius and Seychelles.
Other Southern Zone qualifiers in the second round to be played in July see South Africa take on Botswana, Zambia play improving Swaziland, Zimbabwe tackle Namibia and Comoros challenge Lesotho.
West African qualifying is split into Zone West A and Zone West B, with both starting in July.
Sierra Leone take on Senegal in Zone West A, while Guinea-Bissau challenge Guinea, Liberia take on Mauritania and Gambia face-off against Mali.
Zone West B starts with a first round tie between Togo and Benin, with the winner advancing on to meet Nigeria in the second round in August.
Also entering the fray at that point are Ivory Coast and Ghana, who take on Niger and Burkina Faso respectively.
North African qualifying is simple, with just two ties determining the sides to compete in Kenya, with both to be played in August. Egypt will take on Morocco, while Algeria challenge Libya.
The Central Zone is also a one-tie showdown for a place in the finals and also starts in August.
Fancied Cameroon take on minnows São Tomé and Príncipe, while there is a classic showdown between DR Congo and Congo-Brazzaville that is sure to be a passionate affair.
Another tasty tie should be the clash between rivals Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
DR Congo were the inaugural winners of the CHAN tournament in 2009 in the finals hosted by Ivory Coast, before Tunisia won in Sudan two years later.
There was more North African success in 2014 in South Africa when Libya surprisingly claimed the title, before DR Congo regained their crown Rwanda last year.
Nick Said is a Southern African sports writer for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @NickSaid.