The president of the African champions of 2012, Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia, has called every team in their 2015 African Nations' Cup (ANC) qualifying group a "tough opponent." The coach of last year's semi-finalists Burkina Faso is more optimistic. "Providing we play at our best, we stand a chance to qualify," Paul Put said to AllAfrica.com. And the South African media have declared being grouped with continental champions Nigeria for the qualifiers a "horror draw". But before any of those teams begin to compete for the right to play in the ANC finals, there are others to consider.
Twenty-eight teams will begin their journeys to Morocco in little over two weeks' time when they have will play home and away ties against one opponent. For half of them, the road will reach its cul-de-sac by next month. The 14 who survive will be drawn into seven more double-legged ties. Those who emerge victorious from that will find themselves in one of the seven groups, where they will have to face with the big boys. The shortest distance between two points might be a straight line but, like most African travel, these teams' travels will not take that path.
Theirs is one of twists and turns and they will have to tread carefully, especially if they are the more fancied team in a tie. The opening rounds are where favourites fall at a far greater rate and you can see why with a quick glance here. Zimbabwe's press have said Tanzania "looks like a fairly easy opponent," despite their decent showing in 2014 World Cup qualifiers in a pool that included Ivory Coast. One member of the Zimbabwean public believes if Ian Gorowa's Warriors do not beat the East Africans then "we are not a football nation."
The opposite rings true too. A columnist in the Times of Swaziland, Lwazi Dlamini, all but wrote of his country's chances of overcoming Sierra Leone. "The reality is that our chances of qualifying... are as alive as those of a patient waiting for a family member to pull the plug on the life support system," the author of Lwzai's Pandora's Box wrote. "Even if, miraculously, we go beyond the 71st-ranked Sierra Leone, we will be trespassing in a jungle blind-folded as the giants of African football will be lying in wait." Others, such as Burundi and Guinea-Bissau have not been written off quite so brazenly but have been forewarned that their task will not be easy. Burundi, whose star midfielder Papy Faty broke his leg while playing a club game in South Africa on Wednesday night, have been told it will be "extremely difficult to go past Botswana," even though the Zebras are on the decline following the 2012 ANC qualification, and Guinea-Bissau were reminded that the Central African Republic, whose country remains in the grip of civil war, caused "shocks of a monumental scale," for the part they played in eliminating South Africa in 2014 World Cup qualifying.
That's why those who really expect their first round clashes to be nothing more than routine are being quietly confident and outwardly cautious. Liberia are among them. They will take on Lesotho, who have never qualified for an ANC and are made up of mostly local players while the bulk of the Liberian side are overseas based. The website that calls itself the official home of Liberian football, Liberiansoccer.com, has advised them not to take their opposition lightly.
Kenya received a similar warning from their goalkeeper Arnold Origi who said to Goal.com that his team "must not assume we are already in the group stages," given that they will face the tiny Comoros Islands. And Uganda are also philosophical about their chances against 189th ranked Madagascar, who they are expected to beat. "You never know you are there until you are there," their captain Andy Mwesigwa was quoted as saying in the Daily Monitor. Sounds like a sensible way to approach what will be a tiring and tricky journey.
To be played on the weekend of 16-18 May and 30-31 May and 1 June Liberia v Lesotho Kenya v Comoros Islands Madagascar v Uganda Mauritania v Equatorial Guinea Namibia v Congo Libya v Rwanda Burundi v Botswana Central African Republic v Guinea Bissau Swaziland v Sierra Leone Gambia v Seychelles Sao Tome e Principe v Benin Malawi v Chad Tanzania v Zimbabwe Mozambique v South Sudan