By Mark Gleeson
LIBREVILLE (Reuters) – After the drama of the Nations Cup which concluded on Sunday, African soccer faces a busy year of World Cup qualifiers where newly crowned continental champions Cameroon face an uphill task to make it through.
By November, Africa’s five places in Russia will be decided, but several groups could be wrapped up earlier.
Cameroon, who beat Egypt 2-1 in the Nations Cup final in Libreville, have to beat neighbours Nigeria both home and away in back-to-back fixtures in August and September to stand any chance of qualifying.
Egypt are seeking their first World Cup place since Italy in 1990. Repeated failure since has made it almost a national obsession.
They have made a good start, leading their group by two points from Uganda, who they meet next in August.
“It’s still a way off so we have to see,” said coach Hector Cuper when asked about the World Cup campaign after Sunday’s defeat.
Ivory Coast and Senegal, who both flopped at the Nations Cup, can redeem themselves with qualification, while Democratic Republic of Congo provided evidence in Gabon of their growing status and are fancied to be back at the World Cup for the first time since 1974.
They have made a 100 percent start to the group phase and a quarter-final place at the Nations Cup will have boosted confidence.
Before the World Cup group qualifiers resume in August, all countries will play one round of qualifiers for the 2019 Nations Cup finals, which Cameroon will be hosting. The other five rounds of group games will be played next year.
This year, Africa also introduces an expanded Champions League with the group phase increased from eight to 16 clubs. There is an identical format change for the continent’s second club competition, the Confederation Cup.
Both begin this weekend with first round, first leg matches in the opening knockout stage.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)