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By ESPN Staff

Mission impossible for Togolese

Perhaps the only thing going in Togo's favour as they make their debut at the World Cup this summer is that they will have been able to secure the best deal available for their flight home, knowing as they do, well in advance, the exact date when those tickets will be needed.

If that sounds a touch uncharitable to a country who have performed wonders in merely qualifying for the finals, consider this: their fragile hopes of putting on any kind of show are resting on the ungainly shoulders of Arsenal's clumsy striker Emmanuel Adebayor.

Anyone who was at Fratton Park earlier this season to witness the leggy striker's performance, where he spurned two clear chances that Emile Heskey would have snaffled up without fuss, will understand the forlorn nature of such a predicament. If ever a country was there simply to make up the numbers, it is Togo.

At least they have had their party early. After topping a qualifying group containing Senegal, quarter-finalists last time around, Zambia and Mali, with a record of just one defeat and seven wins from ten matches - the biggest points haul of any of the African qualifiers - the country's president declared a national holiday.

Despite a power cut and torrential rain in the capital, Lome's streets were flooded with revellers, too, celebrating the realisation of something unthinkable less than a year previously.

A 3-1 home win over the Senegalese sparked a seven-game unbeaten run that featured a hard fought 1-1 draw against the same opposition and, on a nervy final day of matches, a 3-2 comeback victory over Congo that meant Senegal's resounding win over Mali counted for nothing.

Much of the credit for Togo's remarkable transformation from African also-rans into World Cup participants goes to Nigerian boss Stephen Keshi.

Captain of the Super Eagles during their inspiring USA 94 campaign, Keshi's alchemy was Togo's trump card during a qualifying campaign that had threatened to stall before his intervention.

But, alas, he will not be leading the Hawks in Germany. He was sacked earlier this year after a humiliating African Nations experience in Egypt that saw three straight defeats and an early trip home to a very different Lome. Bunting and street parties there were not.

Keshi's card was marked when, with the combustible Adeybayor having trained only twice in the build up to the tournament due to a contract dispute with his then employers AS Monaco, he dropped the nation's golden one for the first match.

Adebayor, a primadonna who only retains the support of his team-mates due to their over-reliance on him, embroiled himself in a petulant argument with the coach and soured what was supposed to be a celebration of the country's achievements.

Adebayor has since branded the dispute as a meaningless spat - Keshi accused the 22-year-old of being a 'cry baby' - but the damage was done.

Veteran of African football Otto Pfister has taken on mission impossible. The German, previously in charge of Rwanda, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Ghana, and Zaire (DR Congo), amongst others in a nomadic coaching career, perhaps deserves his chance to lead at team at the World Cup after being robbed of the opportunity on the eve of France 98 when Saudi Arabia, who he had guided to the competition, dispensed with his services.

Whether he will be glad of the second chance after group games against France, Switzerland and 2002 semi-finalists South Korea, only he will truly know.

That African Nations humbling revealed just how limited a side Togo are. But the signs were there long before.

A defeat at the hands of Equatorial Guinea in a pre-qualifier in 2003 needed a second leg turnaround to prevent their World Cup adventure being stillborn.

An opening full-qualifying defeat to Zambia, a draw with Liberia and victory over Mali massively against the run of play, thanks to two very late goals, suggest Togo rode their luck on route to Germany.

Regardless, they made it and so must have something going for them.

Adebayor, despite his suspect temperament and a first touch barely worthy of the description, is still capable of unsettling defences with his bandy-legged marauding and occasional flashes of inspiration.

With 11 goals in total - exactly half of the country's haul - he was the leading goalscorer in the African zone. Arsene Wenger, not a bad judge of a player, obviously saw enough in him to lay out around £1 million for his services in January and so he should not be dismissed completely.

Kader Cougbadja will be his likely partner and he seems to raise his game when wearing the national kit. That he recently left Sochaux to join French second division side Guingamp on loan, however, suggests he will need to.

Eric Akoto, a big, bruising centre-back in the finest of West African traditions, should bring a degree of authority and leadership to a three-man back-line that conceded just 8 goals in 10 full qualifiers. A workmanlike midfield quintet will hope to swamp more gifted opponents, creating a platform for the front two to feed on whatever scraps are on offer to them.

Pfister, in attempting to overcome his side's natural shortcomings, may elect to employ a more inventive formation, as he has with other similarly impoverished sides, but it is difficult to tell.

The team's preparations have been conducted exclusively behind closed doors and, fearing heavy defeats in friendlies may irrevocably damage the team's brittle confidence, the first we will really see of Pfister's Togo will be when they line up against the Koreans in Frankfurt on June 13.

In is a hackneyed cliché that for some teams merely qualifying represents a glorious end in itself but that detracts nothing from its undeniable truth in Togo's case.

Damage limitation is the name of the game. It should be hoped for their sakes, and for the advancement of African football in general, that they manage to avoid the humiliation many fear they are walking headlong into.