This article profiles five African internationals to watch out for this weekend. Saturday and Sunday will once again see Africa’s finest take to the continent’s turf to (hopefully) advance and take one step closer to the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
With the likes of Morocco, Ghana, South Africa and Cameroon currently sitting outside qualification places, competition will be fierce—expect fireworks as the nations compete for a place at the international top table.
The players profiled each have a special narrative that accompanies them this weekend; from young starlets on the cusp of breaking into the set-up to senior internationals attempting that long-awaited revival, all are edging closer to their destiny.
With Africa’s "smaller sides" growing in confidence and stature, don’t expect all of those featured to be smiling boldly come Sunday evening.
Dreams are about to be broken.
The unsung hero in Milan’s African collective is Sulley Muntari. The likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Mario Balotelli, Stephan El-Shaarawy and M'Baye Niang may provide the glitz, the glamour and most importantly, the goals, but Muntari is one of the key figures that keeps things ticking along.
Speaking to the BBC yesterday, he revealed the desperation among the Black Stars to put right their dismal Africa Cup of Nations campaign, to go one step closer to the World Cup and to reaffirm Ghana’s place among the giants of Africa. Not necessarily an easy feat at the time of writing.
Having missed the Cup of Nations, Muntari, 28, may also have his own personal reasons for giving everything for the Black Stars’ cause. A member of the Black Stars squad in both 2006 and 2010, the former Portsmouth man witnessed the grave injustice Ghana suffered in the quarterfinal in South Africa—it has surely given him a sense of unfinished business.
With some young players coming through and emerging into the national set up, confidence has cause to grow again in West Africa. Muntari will be hoping that they can continue this by picking up three points against Sudan this weekend.
The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon need all the help they can get. Years of disappointment are threatening to undermine the reputation of one of Africa’s historic superpowers. Failure again this time around and Cameroon may slip away from the continent’s top table. They currently sit third in Group I, behind Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo—a win against Togo at home this weekend is imperative.
Thus, there was a communal sigh of relief in Yaounde when Tottenham Hotspur left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto declared his intention to return to the national set-up.
After a disagreement back in 2010, there was a parting of the ways, the defender concerned about the professionalism and the decision-making of those at the Federation. But, after a stint in the wilderness, "Disco Benny" is back and keen to make up for lost time.
Along with former teammate Sebastien Bassong, Assou-Ekotto is set to form part of a backline depleted through injuries to Dany Nounkeu and Aurelien Chedjou—the Indomitable Lions will require every ounce of the Spurs man’s famous composure and panache to get the better of Togo.
Second chances don’t get much bigger than this.
In 2010, Obafemi Martins played 12 times for the national side, in 2012 he played just once and he’s yet to feature at all for the Super Eagles in 2013, having been omitted from Stephen Keshi’s all-conquering national side.
While a move to the States, and to Seattle Sounders, may signify the closing chapter on a career and an admission that his time with the Super Eagles is over, it seems that Martins is being afforded a seat in the last chance saloon.
Injury to AFCON hero Emmanuel Emenike, and the dire form of Ike Uche, has left Keshi scrabbling around for options up top. Peter Odemwingie’s recent— and notorious—Twitter outbursts have made him all but un-selectable, and so Keshi has turned to former Newcastle man Martins.
Having left Levante after a decent spell in Spain, Martins returns to the national set-up with both experience and an impressive international strike rate of 18 in 38. Chances may be limited moving forward, but if Martins can demonstrate his lethal finishing against Kenya in Calabar, he may be reintroduced into Keshi’s plans.
Following their unconvincing AFCON campaign, it was perhaps natural that South Africa boss Gordon Igesund rang the chances for Bafana. Even so, few expected the national coach to progress without the services of skipper Bongani Khumalo.
The cited reason is that the PAOK defender is rusty after minimal game time in Greece, but realistically, Igesund may see this as a prime opportunity to move away from the limited Khumalo and introduce new blood into the side.
Siyanda Xulu has, for a time, been viewed as the future of the Bafana backline, and this weekend’s clash at the Cape Town Stadium against the Central African Republic may be a perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate what he brings to the table.
Currently following in Russia’s strong tradition of South African imports, he plays his football at Rostov—regularly tackling the likes of Samuel Eto’o in the domestic league. With only one international cap to date—coming last summer in a friendly against Gabon—such an important game may come too soon for Xulu, but except him to receive (and take) his next chance sometime soon.
One of the major talking points over the last week, as national coaches released their squad lists ahead of the qualifiers, was the omission of Didier Drogba from the Ivory Coast’s roster. His absence is further evidence that the Golden Generation has reached the end of the road.
Another AFCON disappointment may have been the last hurrah for a talented bunch of players who have grown up together but ultimately, failed to deliver the success their ability promised.
Drogba has been the figurehead of this group, and Sabri Lamouchi’s decision to drop him may herald a new dawn for the Elephants.
The side may not be weaker for his loss. In fact, the icon’s absence may give a new crop of forwards a chance to blossom.
Seydou Doumbia and Wilfried Bony have each played nearly 20 games for the national side, without distinction, while Anzhi giant Lacina Traore is yet to receive a decent run in the side. Tall and imposing, yet with a decent touch and the grace of a much smaller man, the Russia-based frontman has been identified as the natural successor to Drogba.
A home game against tiny Gambia will give him a perfect opportunity to begin to command himself as the Drog’s replacement.