JOHANNESBURG: Defending champion Egypt and fellow African powerhouse Cameroon face humiliating eliminations from next year’s Cup of Nations in this weekend’s penultimate round of qualifying.
Two of Africa’s three most successful teams, with 11 titles between them, they are not expected to make it to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in five months’ time.
Two-time champion Nigeria is also up against it. Even World Cup quarterfinalist Ghana, a four-time winner, has work to do.
And instead of Morocco, Tunisia and Mali, there could be Central African Republic, Malawi and Cape Verde at the Cup of Nations.
Of the big guns, only Ivory Coast has fired in a difficult qualifying competition for the top teams, sealing its place alongside the co-hosts and the only other qualifier so far — lowly Botswana.
Instead, Guinea tops Nigeria in Group B, and Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon trails Senegal and Congo in Group E.
Egypt, Africa’s three-time defending champion and record seven-time Cup of Nations winner, is last in Group G and without a win in a disastrous campaign that ended the reign of the team’s most successful coach ever.
Sudan has reached just one African Cup in the last 36 years but threatens to oust Ghana for the automatic place in Group I.
Egypt sacked longtime coach Hassan Shehata following a 0-0 home draw with South Africa in June, which effectively sealed its elimination. Only two wins and an almost-impossible set of results elsewhere could see it steal one of two qualifying berths for second-place teams.
It almost certainly won’t happen, meaning Egypt will fail to qualify for the African Cup of Nations — a tournament it has dominated — for the first time since 1978.
The Pharaohs appear to have conceded this, choosing to play their under-23 team under stand-in coach Hani Ramzy for remaining qualifiers against Sierra Leone this weekend and Niger in October.
Only veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan was included from the struggling senior squad as he closes in on the record for the most international appearances. Hassan has 175 caps and is three off all-time leader Mohamad Al-Deayea of Saudi Arabia.
But his impending milestone is of no consolation to Egypt. Against a backdrop of civil upheaval at home, it has seen its title defense fall apart even before the tournament begins.
Unbeaten and yet to concede a goal, Group G leader South Africa hopes to confirm its place at the Cup of Nations on Saturday with victory in Niger. If Bafana Bafana wins, and Sierra Leone doesn’t beat Egypt, the South Africans will qualify.
"We will need to fight to get what we want," said recalled midfielder Teko Modise, who said the trip to Niger was South Africa’s toughest game. "The good thing is that we know what is at stake, we know what we are up against, we know what we want and we know how to get it."
Four-time African champion Cameroon’s plight is almost as desperate as Egypt’s. It’s five points off group leader Senegal and two behind Congo ahead of a home game against Mauritius — which should give Javier Clemente’s team its first win since the opening round 12 months ago.
But any slip by Cameroon and a win for Congo in Senegal will eliminate the Indomitable Lions even before the final round, when they travel to Congo needing victory and plenty of help from other games.
"We don’t want to let this chance pass us by, having failed to qualify for the last two tournaments," said Congo captain Tshinyama Tshiolola. "It’ll be very tough playing against Senegal and Cameroon, but I’m optimistic. Those who wear the shirt and love their country will give everything they can."
Nigeria included Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel for the trip to Madagascar, with the Super Eagles desperate to keep pace with Guinea, which is at home to Ethiopia and three points ahead. Like Cameroon, Nigeria cannot afford any slip-ups.
Without Michael Essien because of another long-term knee injury, Ghana expects to beat winless Swaziland. If Sudan wins in Republic of Congo, the Black Stars will face the Sudanese in a group decider in the final round.
Other established football teams are struggling across the continent, with Cape Verde leading round-five opponent Mali in Group A and World Cup qualifier Algeria bottom of Group D — where Central African Republic, a team that has never played in a major tournament, is challenging the might of Morocco at the top. They meet this weekend.
Togo is out of the running and 2004 African champion Tunisia is under pressure from lowly Malawi to qualify behind Botswana from Group K. Malawi hosts Tunisia in a crucial tie on Saturday.
"Whoever wins this game can start preparing for a trip to the Africa Cup of Nations finals," Malawi coach Kinnah Phiri said.
A point for Uganda in Angola will take it to its first African Cup of Nations in 34 years in another unexpected development as one of the most unpredictable qualifying competitions in years heads into the final stages.