On the face of it, Bafana Bafana should qualify for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in Ivory Coast alongside Morocco from group K.
The one-time winners – South Africa in 1996 and Morocco 20 years earlier – appear to be the two strongest teams from the group of four that also include Zimbabwe and Liberia. But stranger things have happened in this game. And sport is particularly fickle at the top, where previous results are nothing more than numbers on a piece of paper, with little or no influence on the outcomes of current games.
South Africa’s senior national team coach Hugo Broos’ assessment of the group he and his team find themselves in was spot on. The Belgian highlighted that the Atlas Lions of Morocco are favourites given that they are the only ones of the four to have participated at the most recent Afcon in Cameroon, where they reached the quarterfinals.
He should have added that the North Africans are also the only ones going to the Fifa World Cup in Qatar at the end of the year.
Add the fact that a good number of players from their squad are attached to clubs in the top European leagues and your smart money should be placed on Morocco topping group K and leaving the rest to battle it out for the runners-up berth, which will secure a ticket to Ivory Coast 2023.
Not played on paper
Logic would suggest Bafana should win their tussle with the Zimbabwean outfit they recently got the better of in World Cup qualifying, while Liberia look set to prop up the group table.
Even the countries’ continental rankings suggest so, with Morocco occupying second spot, Bafana in 13th, Zimbabwe 33rd and Liberia 46th. Of all the qualifying groups, this one has the widest gaps in rankings. On paper, things should be straightforward then.
But football is not played on paper and there are many variables that could see group K producing results way different from what many expect.
While they are the strongest of the lot with their Europe-based stars, Morocco could be in turmoil by the time the qualifiers begin in June. Their Bosnian coach, Vahid Halilhodžić, has had battles with star player Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea, whom he accused of faking injury so he could miss matches in Morocco.
Halilhodžić described him as a player who “lacks respect” and is “divisive and a ticking time bomb”, and left him out of the Afcon squad for Cameroon. “I can’t bring on a player who could blow up the team, even if he is called Lionel Messi,” the coach was quoted as saying after their elimination by Egypt at this year’s tournament.
But now Morocco Football Federation president Fouzi Lekjaa has instructed that the country call on its best players as they build up for the World Cup and try to qualify for the next Afcon.
It will be interesting to see what happens if Halilhodžić, who also does not see eye to eye with Ajax Amsterdam’s Noussair Mazraoui, digs in his heels and excludes the two from his squad again. Will the federation force him to resign? The Atlas Lions could well have a new man in charge by June, a move likely to destabilise them.
The axe over Zimbabwe
For Broos’ information, while Bafana have never played Morocco in a Nations Cup qualifier, they have generally done well when the two countries have met at the biennial continental showpiece’s finals. In five meetings, Bafana have won twice and lost once, with the other two matches being drawn.
In 1998, Jomo Sono’s defending champions were 2-1 winners in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Two years later, Carlos Queiroz’s men got the better of his Portuguese compatriot Humberto Coelho’s in a decisive final group match in Segou, Mali, with Bafana winning 3-1. At the 2004 tournament in Tunisia, the two countries drew 1-1 and were again in a 2-2 stalemate in Durban during the 2013 edition. Only at the 2019 tournament did Morocco beat Bafana 1-0 in a final group match in Cairo, Egypt.
Overall, positive results suggest that Bafana should be tackling the Atlas Lions with confidence.
But Zimbabwe are not assured of participation in the qualifiers, after Fifa suspended them following interference by their government. But moves are afoot on the north side of the Limpopo River to sort things out, with the country’s Sports and Recreation Council set to meet with the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa), which it has accused of many bad doings, from sexual harassment to embezzlement of funds.
No doubt the government and Zifa will agree they are in a group from which they can earn qualification and will want to iron things out to ensure that Fifa reinstates the country. Fifa is set to make its ruling on the matter in mid-May, shortly before the qualifiers begin.
While Bafana beat the Warriors in World Cup qualifying, it was by the narrowest of margins at the FNB Stadium after the two sides drew 0-0 in Harare. Zimbabwe were not at their full strength for those matches and given that they always lift their game when they play Bafana, Broos and his boys will know only too well that success over the Warriors is far from guaranteed.
Should Zimbabwe remain suspended by Fifa and thus forced out of the Afcon qualifiers, Bafana should fancy their chances of finishing ahead of Liberia to book their spot at the finals.
Liberia – an unknown quantity to South Africa’s silver-haired coach – should be the group’s whipping boys. And their cause is not helped by the fact that they could well find themselves playing their home matches on neutral ground as they did in the World Cup qualifiers, given that their stadium in Monrovia was declared unfit for international matches.
Losing homeground advantage is sure to weaken the team coached by Peter Butler even further, and the other three countries in the group will look at their clashes with the Lone Star as guaranteed victories.
South Africa was in the same group as Liberia for the 2002 Afcon qualifiers. A Bafana side that had a hair-raising flight to Monrovia – forced to circle because of thunderstorms, then divert to Freetown in Sierra Leone to refuel before carrying on to their destination – earned a draw there before reigning victorious in the return leg at home. Similar results would be welcome this time around, although given how low Liberia rank and their lack of star quality, Bafana should be gunning for the maximum six points from their clashes with the great George Weah’s countrymen.
Having watched the previous tournament from home, the senior national men’s team will have no reason not to earn an Afcon qualifier this time around. And while South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan has been quoted as saying Broos’ job is not on the line should the team not book their ticket to Ivory Coast, the reality is that there would be no reason to retain the Belgian on the huge salary he is on if Bafana don’t finish in the top two of group K.