What a day
Twenty-four out of the 32 teams which will be participating in the 2006 World Cup in Germany have been decided. Of that figure, 14 qualified on one day of drama which brought joy, despair, hope and anguish in equal measure. Inas Mazhar
reports from Tunisia
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Cameroon's Rigobert Song cries at the end of the World Cup qualifier against Egypt in Yaounde which ended in a 1-1 draw. The result knocked Cameroon out of the 2006 World Cup; Tunisian striker Zied Jaziri vies with Morocco's Walid Ragrgui in Tunis (photos: AFP)
With three-quarters of the competing nations already making their travel plans for next summer, the appetite is growing for what promises to be an exciting tournament. Certainly, if the weekend's qualifiers are anything to go by, it could be one of the most nail- biting tournaments in recent years.
Events in Africa on Saturday left statisticians frantically studying group tables, fans clamouring for information from other games and a last-gasp finish in Group 3.
Saturday 8 October 2005 will go down as a key date in the history of African football. For on this final day of qualifying, four nations clinched their places at the World Cup finals for the first time. Courtesy of this wind of change, the flags of Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Angola will flutter proudly in German skies next summer.
That night, the scenes of mass hysteria in the streets of Lome, Accra, Abidjan and Luanda could scarcely contrast more starkly with the funeral mood gripping Dakar, Praia, Douala and Lagos.
The duel for top spot between Togo and Senegal finally went the way of the former in Group 1. Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor had promised his nation a victory in Brazzaville and he and his team-mates were as good as their word. Courtesy of a brace from Kader Toure in a stadium with a reputation as Congo's fortress, the Hawks homed in on their World Cup perch.
Consequently, the goals scored by Henri Camara (2) and El-Hadji Diouf in a 3-0 defeat of Mali proved insufficient to take Senegal to a second World Cup. With seven wins, two draws and a defeat, Stephen Keshi's Togo finished top of Group 1 on 23 points, thereby demonstrating to any doubters that their qualification is well deserved.
For what seemed like an eternity in Group 2, the entire continent had been awaiting the day when Ghana, one of the leading nations in African football, would earn an invitation to football's greatest global gathering. Their wait is now over, as by triumphing 4-0 in the Cape Verde Islands the Blacks Stars have finally managed to avoid having their pockets picked at the last minute.
While a draw would have sufficed for Ratomir Dujkovic's men, they instead claimed a resounding victory in their opponents' backyard. Having dominated all of their Group 2 rivals throughout, the Ghanaians now reap their reward for their near-perfect campaign (six victories, three draws and a single defeat).
With a final tally of 21 points, they have left Congolese and South African World Cup dreams in ruins. And by cancelling each other out in a 2- 2 draw, the Simbas and Bafana Bafana both ended up five points adrift of the deserved group winners.
Prior to the last day of qualifiers, even the most inveterate of gamblers would have thought twice about placing a bet on the Ivory Coast qualifying from Group 3. Indeed, on the evening of their recent defeat by Cameroon, the tears of disappointment seemed sufficient to swell the country's Ebrie lagoon. Even as they romped to a 3-1 victory in Sudan, Didier Drogba and his team- mates could scarcely have imagined that Egypt would reopen their seemingly closed road to Germany.
But by snatching a 1-1 draw in Yaounde in the final minutes of their encounter with the Indomitable Lions, Egypt destroyed Cameroonian hopes of competing in a fifth consecutive World Cup and sixth overall. If Pierre Wome had converted the penalty awarded to his side in added time, Cameroon would have made it. Instead, the 'green tide' which had filled the terraces of the Ahidjo stadium remained rooted to the spot well after the final whistle, as if unable to take in what had just happened.
The image of an inconsolable Samuel Eto'o will no doubt remain forever etched in the darkest annals of Cameroon's football history. Justifiably proud at having out-roared the Lions, the Ivorian Elephants have already begun proclaiming themselves the new kings of the continent.
Nigeria had been widely expected to emerge victorious from Group 4 but in the end, Angola held their nerve to qualify in their place. After keeping their fans in suspense for over an hour, their captain Akwa finally struck the goal that afforded them some precious breathing space. At the same time, a rumour began to circulate on the terraces of Nigeria's Abuja National Stadium that the Angolans had lost to the Rwandan Wasps.
But with the final whistle came the painful truth, rendering the five goals scored by the Super Eagles immediately meaningless. This time around, they will have to follow the World Cup from their sofas.
Of the five African teams which will be going to the World Cup, only Tunisia from Group 5 have been there before. The Tunisians made their first appearance at the World Cup in 1978 followed by two more entries. Roger Lemerre's men nonetheless suffered a few scares in their hotly-contested local derby with Morocco.
On Saturday, they were on the back foot almost immediately in fact, when Marouane Chamakh struck an opportunist goal for the visitors after just two minutes which stunned the 60,000 spectators at the 7 November Stadium in Rades. Tunisia drew level thanks to Jose Clayton's penalty, but the Moroccans went ahead a second time through Chamakh. The footballing gods were smiling on the Tunisians, however, and they sealed their ticket when Morocco captain Talal Al-Karkouri netted an own goal.
Tunisia could have gone on to score more and created the majority of chances in the final minutes especially after the Moroccan defender Aziz Ben Askar was sent off in the 77th minute.
The 2-2 draw was enough to keep Selim Benachour and company at the top of Group 5, despite the luckless Atlas Lions managing to go the whole campaign without losing, the only unbeaten country in Africa -- with five wins and five draws. As a result, the Carthage Eagles can now look forward to appearing in their second consecutive World Cup finals.
"It was a very tough and tense game," Lemerre, the former coach of France when they won Euro 2000, said. "The four goals were scored from mistakes which proves that the players from both sides were under so much pressure.
"I have to confess that I never imagined this dramatic scenario for the game, and most of the time I had no idea where the game was going."
The Tunisian captain Riadh Bouazizi congratulated his nation for the qualification but also saluted his opponents.
"The Moroccans today showed what they are really made of," Bouazizi said. "They gave us a hard time but I think we were luckier tonight"
"The result says we are out of the World Cup," Moroccan head coach Badou Ezaki said. "It doesn't matter now if we played well or not. The referee ruined it for us. He gave the victory to the home team," Ezaki added, referring to Egyptian referee Essam Abdel-Fatah.
Qualifications in other continents were as follows:
The names Croatia, England, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the Netherlands may be accustomed to appearing at football's showpiece event but even so, the confirmation of qualification was gratefully accepted in the Old Continent.
Established powers England and Italy hardly set the pulses of their fans racing with narrow home victories, although it will be argued that both teams achieved their objectives. Portugal came from a goal behind to defeat Liechtenstein 2-1 in Lisbon, while Croatia can be justifiably proud of their efforts in defeating in- form Sweden by a single goal in Zagreb.
Arguably Europe's result of the day came in Prague where the Netherlands beat the Czech Republic 2-0. Goals from Rafael van der Vaart and Barry Opdam earned the Oranje the three points in a match which saw Edwin van der Sar save a Tomas Rosicky penalty. The result meant Group 6 leaders Poland were assured of a finals berth without having even kicked a ball.
The stage is now set for a memorable final night as 15 teams battle for either outright qualification or a place in the play-offs.
There were scenes of jubilation in Ecuador and Paraguay as both countries got the results they needed to qualify. Ecuador played out a goalless draw with Uruguay in Quito, while Paraguay defeated Venezuela 1-0 in Maracaibo, courtesy of Nelson Haedo Valdez's 65th- minute strike. There was dancing in the streets, on the terraces and even on the pitch as the final whistle blew in both matches.
Australia beat the Solomon Islands 9-1 on aggregate in their two-legged play-off. They will play the fifth-placed South American country in a play-off on 12 and 16 November.
Asia and Concacaf
Costa Rica's 3-0 victory over the United States made them the 24th country to qualify for Germany 2006. A brace from Carlos Hernandez and a Paolo Wanchope strike gave them a place at their second successive World Cup finals. The US and Mexico also sealed their places.
Japan, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia booked their tickets from Asia earlier. Bahrain and Uzbekistan are level at 1-1 after the first leg of their play-off. The second leg was scheduled yesterday in Bahrain. The winner will play the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf region in another play-off to decide who reaches Germany. Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago have the opportunity to take fourth place in the North and Central America and Caribbean.