For the 53 national teams that make up the Confederation of African Football, commonly shortened to CAF, the road to Russia and the 2018 FIFA World Cup is long and extremely competitive. The tournament format for next year’s World Cup only allows five berths to CAF teams, that is less than 10 percent of a continent where football has been developing at a very interesting pace since the early 1980s.
The third round of World Cup qualifying matches for Africa is currently underway and will last through November. Two national teams have already secured their tickets to Russia: Egypt and Nigeria. The first round began in October 2015 and the second took place a month later in a feverish series of matches that were broadcast on international sports networks such as ESPN. By the time the third round started in October of last year, the Egyptian Pharaohs and the Nigerian Super Eagles already looked like strong contenders to qualify at the top of their respective groups.
For the Egyptian team, qualifying for the World Cup was something of a tradition back in the 20th century; to a certain extent, the same can be said about Nigeria in this century. Although these are two African football powerhouses, the reality of the qualifying rounds is that they must be taken one match at a time; prior performance does not determine the future as it relates to the FIFA World Cup. To this effect, it helps to consider that fabled national teams such as Argentina and the Netherlands, known for players signed with the best European clubs, are currently struggling to qualify.
In the CAF Group A, a tight race between Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is down to a three-point advantage for the Northern Africans. In Group C, the situation is even tighter between Morocco and the Ivory Coast, two teams separated by just one point. Senegal and Burkina Faso, two national teams that have developed very quickly in recent years, have to watch out for the surprising Cape Verde Islands. Algeria, a very strong team in the celebrated 2014 World Cup in Brazil, has managed to grab just one point in Group B.
The Ivory Coast Elephants, a team blessed with incredibly talented athletes who dazzle stadium crowds in Europe, are at risk of missing out on going to Russia, much to the dismay of World Cup fans who enjoy “jogo bonito,” the colorful type of play created in Brazil, the spiritual home of football, for which the Elephants are also well known. With only a handful of matches left in the third and final round before the holidays, it is too early to predict the three African teams that will join Egypt and Nigeria as they prepare for Russia. The same number of berths will be awarded to CAF for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, but the 2026 edition of this global tournament will allow nine African teams as part of a FIFA expansion plan.