Egypt formally qualified for next year's African Nations Cup, writes Eric Asomugha
It would have taken an unimaginable score -- Madagascar would have had to beat Mauritius 17-0 -- to qualify instead of Egypt for next year's African Nations Cup in Tunisia. Still, Egyptians were taking no chances and decided against premature celebrations until the final results were in. In the end, the final score was unanticipated but welcome: it was Mauritius which upended Madagascar 2-0.
Mauritius-Madagascar intrigues were never seriously going to stop Egypt from an 11th consecutive appearance in the African Nations Cup. Out of 23 ANC finals, Egypt has failed to qualify for only five. And Egypt has also won the tournament a record four times, along with Ghana. Neither Madagascar nor Mauritius are anywhere near such accomplishments.
But when Madagascar surprised Egypt 1-0 in Madagascar at the start of the group qualifiers, doubts surfaced surrounding Egypt's possibility of qualifying for Tunisia. The loss to Madagascar on 7 September 2002 heightened tension in Egyptian football circles as many questioned the competence of coach Mohsen Saleh and his criteria for team selection.
The already tense relationship between Saleh and his critics intensified following a humiliating 5-0 loss to France in a friendly in Paris on 30 April.
As critics called for his head, Saleh asked to resign but was turned down by the Egyptian FA led by El-Dahshouri Harb. Harb cited the short period at hand to recruit a new coach at such a crucial time.
Harb kept his cool as well as Saleh and it paid off. Egypt topped Group 10 with nine points garnered from four matches, three wins and a loss. It defeated Mauritius 1-0 away, before trashing it 7-0 in Port Said. Two weeks later, Madagascar was humbled 6-0 at the same venue.
But one more hurdle remained. Egypt's hope of qualifying depended on the last group match between Madagascar and Mauritius played on 5 July in Antananarivo. Playing at home, Madagascar had six points and needed to score at least 17 goals without conceding any in order to stop Egypt. Madagascar never came close, finishing with six points from four matches, two wins and two losses.
Madagascar and Mauritius was one of the final matches marking the end of Nations Cup qualifications for Tunisia which will be held from 24 January to 14 February 2004. The elimination series began in September 2002.
Following a preliminary stage, the teams that qualified were divided into seven groups of four and six groups of three. Each of the 13 group winners qualifies, with 14th place going to the best-placed runner-up from the groups containing four teams. Host Tunisia and holders Cameroon qualify automatically.
Senegal was the first to qualify from Group Eight, which included Gambia and Lesotho. The group will be remembered for the ugly incidence that took place in the Senegal/ Gambia encounter. Football hooligans reared their head and both countries were forced to close their borders to control undignified scenes.
Nigeria was next from Group One, escaping a home defeat to earn a hard fought 2-2 draw with visiting Angola before Algeria topped Group 12.
At the end of the final qualification matches decided last weekend, the remaining seven finalists emerged: Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, Guinea, Benin, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Benin from Group Three and Rwanda from Group 13 are making their first-ever appearance in the Nations Cup. Kenya, which topped Group Eight, made it for the first since 1992.
Zimbabwe was the second best team to clinch the last remaining spot. It was a long wait for the Zimbabweans who were anxiously waiting for the outcome of the Gabon/ Sierra Leone fixture. A win for Sierra Leone would have earned the tiny West African country a qualifying spot as the second best but they lost 2-0 to host Gabon, automatically handing the second best spot to Zimbabwe.