African eyes all turn to World Cup
When the third and final round of African World Cup qualifying kicks off this weekend, one nation will be conspicuous by its absence - South Africa.
This is not because Bafana Bafana miss the 2010 campaign through automatic qualification as hosts, but because the team performed so abjectly last year it failed to make the 20 countries battling to join hosts Angola at next January's African Cup of Nations. By then, the five African teams joining South Africa at next year's World Cup will also be known - although, unlike Bafana Bafana, they will have fully earned their place amongst the world's best.
Nonetheless, as African football enters the biggest 15 months in its history, the world's eyes will still be on South Africa. Will it be ready? What about the stadiums? And most crucially for many, how will the problems of crime be addressed as an expected 500,000 visitors from around the globe arrive in this violence-ridden nation?
There are other issues too - but following the terror attacks on Sri Lanka's cricketers in Pakistan earlier this month, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been quick to dispel any doubts about South Africa's hosting of the continent's first World Cup (just as he has always done). "We will be careful in terms of the security of the event," he said after the attacks in Lahore, in which seven died.
"We witnessed the high level of security at the Olympics - and this will be maintained in South Africa, both during the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. I hope this high security level will be one of South Africa's legacies to future World Cups."
Yet football's world governing body is concerned that when the best teams in the world arrive for next year's finals, there might be few locals to watch them. Although global ticket demand for the World Cup is high, the local pick-up has been slow and FIFA is unhappy with South Africa's marketing for its forthcoming tournaments. "There isn't a single promotion of the events, even when you arrive at the airport," secretary general Jerome Valcke lamented earlier this month.
This might partly explain the poor ticket sales ahead of June's Confederations Cup, the eight-team tournament featuring the various continental champions not to mention the last World Cup winners too: Italy being joined by Brazil, Spain, Iraq, New Zealand, America, Egypt and the hosts. Yet with just three months to go, little more than a quarter of the tickets have been snapped up.
That will not be the case when the African race to reach its first World Cup enters its climax this weekend, for never has the continent produced footballers so envied by the rest of the world. 42 clubs, representing 70% of the top leagues of England, Spain and Italy, currently have Africans in their squads - and there aren't too many who wouldn't welcome the likes of Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo) and Seydou Keita (Mali).
In fact, Eto'o - a three-time African Footballer of the Year - is arguably the best finisher in world football at the moment. The first African to ever the top the scoring charts in Spain, La Liga's leading scorer with 25 goals in 27 games, is now chasing an unprecedented African success in the Golden Shoe award. African teams need such quality if they're to be successful next year when the experience of five-time finalists Cameroon could prove crucial. Many neutrals are also hoping that the strongest teams in the continent - such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana - will make it to South Africa.
As the African Diaspora flourishes, the game is also advancing back home - at least monetarily. While the continent's domestic football will always be plagued by inadequate pitches, poor preparation, nutrition, salaries, administration and of course, corruption, sponsors are now pumping record amounts of money into the African Champions League.
A minimum of US$190,000 is received by teams making the eight-team group phase, while US$1m is claimed by the winners - currently Egypt's record-breaking outfit Al Ahly. They are spearheaded by Mohamed Aboutreika, a playmaker much coveted in Europe but who stays in Africa largely thanks to the sizeable salary the Cairo club can afford to give him. In fact, his performances have been at such a high standard that he was named the BBC's African Footballer of 2008 in a public poll, beating the likes of both Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Of course, the only way Aboutreika, 30, is going to receive worldwide acclaim is if Egypt make it to the World Cup. The Pharoahs are the continent's most successful side, with six Nations Cups (including the last two), but chase only their third World Cup spot. Yet Egypt's passionate football followers will also be hoping for something else this year - namely that FIFA's U20 World Cup passes smoothly as the land of the pyramids welcomes visitors in September. And to ensure that this really is the era for African football, FIFA has also awarded the U17 finals in October to Nigeria.
In December this year, the 2010 finals will seem just around the corner as the World Cup draw takes place in Cape Town, whose Green Point Stadium - scheduled to be completed by then - should grace any World Cup finals.
It just remains to be seen which five African nations will join Bafana Bafana in playing there and so add new memories to the continent's World Cup adventure, perhaps still best exemplified by Roger Milla's gyrating hips - dancing footsteps all African footballers would love to follow as South Africa 2010 draws ever closer.