Road to the African Nations Cup is seldom easy
African teams have begun their journeys to the next year's African Nations Cup (ANC) as the first group of away teams jetted off to their respective destinations ahead of the opening round of matches this weekend. Some travelling parties contained notable absentees, others struggled to get off the ground, and one left carrying little more than hope for a dream to come true.
Two goalkeepers are among the men missing out on the initial exchanges and one, Itumeleng Khune, could face a longer period on the sidelines. South Africa's shot-stopper sustained a stress fracture to a bone in his foot and will require six weeks of recovery time as he aims for a mid-October return. Although Darren Keet has replaced Khune in the squad, duties against Sudan will likely be entrusted to Senzo Meyiwa, the Orlando Pirates' goalkeeper who has impressed recently, particularly during last year's CAF Champions League.
Also out of action is Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama, who is also their captain. He withdrew from both upcoming matches this month with what has been described as a "serious family problem." Enyeama has been replaced with locally based keeper David Obiazor in the squad but Austin Ejide is the man still expected to come in to guard between the goalposts and lead the side in their clash with Congo.
What the Super Eagles lack on the field, they will make up for on the bench. Stephen Keshi, who has still yet to sign a contract extension after his terms expired following their round of 16 exit at this summer's World Cup, has nonetheless agreed to guide the team he took to continental glory last year through qualification.
While those teams are missing the men who make up their last line of defence, another, Senegal, are struggling up front. Neither Demba Ba nor Papiss Cisse are available for their match against Egypt, as both are out injured.
Injuries are not what could keep Malawi from picking their best forward against Mali, because the Flames may not turn up in Bamako at all. They were due to leave their home on Tuesday night but did not because the Football Association had not released the funds they needed to travel. As a result, coach Young Chimodzi was unable to name his squad, with uncertainty over how many players will be able to make the trip. In March, Malawi had threatened to withdraw from qualification altogether because of a cash-flow crisis.
Money was not the hurdle for Sierra Leone, who had the means to get to the Ivory Coast, but were almost out of an invitation. Ivory Coast banned all incoming flights from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea as part of their efforts to guard against the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. Only after the Sierra Leone FA confirmed that none of the 24-member travelling party -- which includes 20 players and four members of staff -- had been in Sierra Leone in the last three weeks were they given the green light to enter Ivory Coast.
While that match will be an interesting examination of how new coach Herve Renard manages the big reputations of the likes of Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho and Saloman Kalou, a lower-profile clash will take place in Tunisia, who host Botswana. The southern Africans are considered complete underdogs but have every reason to hope for a fairy-tale start to the campaign.
Botswana were the first team to secure spots at the 2012 ANC tournament, their maiden appearance at the continental cup, and they did it by beating Tunisia. Jerome Ramatlhakwane scored the only goal in that match and is part of the Botswana side that hopes lightning can strike twice. "The last time we went there [Tunisia], we were underdogs. People didn't expect us to beat Tunisia, let alone qualify ahead of them for Nations Cup," he remembered. "We shocked the football world by coming away with a victory. This time around it is not going to be easy."
The road to an ANC seldom is.