Fifteen up, nine more to go. Who still needs a reminder that the 2019 AFCON will feature 24 national teams? As a matter of fact, for the first time in the history of the tournament.
It might seem like a mirage, but the qualifying series for Africa’s biggest football showpiece, which began over a year ago is almost over.
Between the periods, the tournament has been confirmed for expansion and a new host have been announced following the stripping of Cameroon due to some pardonable footballing reasons and some avoidable socio-economic reasons.
Qualification has been secured with game(s) to spare for some teams while the battle is going down the wire in some groups. As at the last count and check of this writer on Wednesday night, only five of the 12 qualifying groups were done and dusted with twenty teams still jostling for the nine remaining tickets to Egypt.
Yes, twenty (20) whole teams, with their chances looking to outshine one another.
How thorough would it have been to weigh the chances of these teams one after the other? It would only elongate the read; so the insight is better given on each group, where the chances of the teams are connected to one another and of course, complicated.
So that the essence of this little background check is achieved, lets take a look at some of the sides that are still in contention for a place in Egypt, leaving out already settled groups.
Perhaps we should brace up for a surprise in Group B, and that is going to be a disaster. That is if Comoros, on 5 points go ahead to Yaounde and beat Cameroon with a wide goal margin.
That means after being stripped of hosting rights but still in the run, Cameroon might be condemned not to take part in the 2019 AFCON if only Comoros pull a surprise.
The tussle gets more real in Group C where 2012 and 2013 third-placed team, Mali have already reigned supreme.
Behind Mali are Burundi on 9 points and Gabon with 7 points; breathing down each others neck as they prepare to face off in the last game of the series.
The Swallows have never qualified for the continental showpiece before. If they will this time, they have to stop the Panthers.
Things are a bit more twisted in Group D with Benin (7), Gambia and Togo on 5 points each battling for the last ticket to follow Algeria.
If the Gambia won’t wave their chances bye, they must defile the odds to beat already qualified and table toppers Algeria in Algiers. But their destiny is not totally in their hands as the Benin Republic would be fired up to see the end of Togo in their last game at the Stade de LA’mitie in Cotonou.
The group has Algeria written all over it, even in terms of goal scoring but one man, as usual, can make the difference for one of the three sides on the last day.
Nigeria already qualified in group E with 10 points, leaving Libya and South Africa to do battle for the last ticket.
Libya are seeking a fourth appearance at the Nations Cup and standing in their way are 1996 Champions, South Africa. They have their fates in their hands as they both square up in Sfax, Tunisia, the adopted home ground of Libya.
With 9 points already, the Bafana Bafana only need to avoid defeat to ensure that things remain the same in the group. Failure to do that means spirited Libya will be on their way to Egypt.
It’s all to play for in Group G in such a precarious situation that sees all four teams struggling for two spots.
As things stand, Zimbabwe lead with 8 points followed by Liberia with 7 points. Dr Congo are third with 6 points while Congo sit bottom of the table with 5 points.
To qualify, Congo faces a trip to Harare and the other game in Kinshasa will see Dr Congo host Liberia.
If their away forms are anything to by, its difficult to think Congo and Liberia will make it. But it’s the last day of qualifying and there is always an extra push.
What a dynasty Mauritania were in the series, taking Group I by surprise and qualifying for they’re first ever showpiece in their history.
They now leave 2010 hosts, Angola (9) and Burkina Faso to battle it out for the last ticket in the group.
Angola might see themselves lucky to be travelling to Francistown to play Botswana who has nothing to play for. How about Burkina Faso who will enjoy the comfort of Ouagadougou as they welcome group leaders and already qualified Mauritania.
It’s such a twisted fate, regardless of how classless Botswana may be, Angola’s job might not come easily even as Burkina Faso will sweat it out.
Unlike many other groups, Group K has the top three team contending for two slots.
Guinea Bissau seeking their second consecutive appearance, Namibia looking for a third, and Mozambique seeking a fifth appearance.
Results could go any way in this group with Mozambique travelling to Bissau and Namibia facing a trip to Lusaka.
Guinea Bissau v Mozambique looks like a real battle and should be no respecter of home ground. On the other hand, Zambia will have to now out with their heads high and that spells danger for Namibia.
If it turns out to be stalemate from both venues, that means the table will remain as it is; Guinea Bissau and Namibia will be the eventual victors.
Finally, someone has to take the loss in the keen but underwhelmed Group L. Surprisingly, that’s where most of the attention will be as Tanzania, Lesotho and Cape Verde are queuing for a spot in Egypt.
Uganda, in classic style, have got 13 points from the three teams. Tanzania and Lesotho both have 5 points while Cape Verde have 4 points.
Now the battle is going down the wire and a photo finish behind Uganda is most likely. Tanzania will play already qualified Uganda in Dar es Salaam while Lesotho will travel to Praia to face Cape Verde.
The best thing about Tanzania’s chance is the home support and they will only have themselves to blame if they miss the chance of another AFCON since 1980.
Cape Verde and Lesotho stand a chance as well but that is if Tanzania take any foot wrongly against Uganda.