All Eyes Turn to the World Cup
With the final round of African World Cup qualifying at the midway point, one nation is conspicuously absent, South Africa.
This is not because Bafana Bafana miss the 2010 campaign through automatic qualification as hosts, but because the team performed so abjectly last year it failed to make the 20 countries battling to join hosts Angola at next January's African Cup of Nations.
By then, the five African teams joining South Africa at next year's World Cup will also be known although, unlike Bafana Bafana, they will have fully earned their place amongst the world's best.
Nonetheless, as African football enters the biggest 12 months in its history, the world's eyes will still be on South Africa. Will it be ready? What about the stadiums? And most crucially for many, how will the problems of crime be addressed as an expected 500,000 visitors from around the globe arrive in this violence-ridden nation?
Yet football's world governing body is concerned that when the best teams in the world arrive for next year's finals, there might be few locals to watch them. Although global ticket demand for the World Cup is high, the local pick-up has been slow and FIFA is unhappy with South Africa's marketing for its forthcoming tournaments.
This might partly explain the poor ticket sales of this months’ Confederations Cup, the eight-team tournament featuring the various continental champions not to mention the last World Cup winners, Italy, being joined by Brazil, Spain, Iraq, New Zealand, America, Egypt and the hosts South Africa
This is not the case as the African race to reach its first World Cup entered its midway point last weekend. 42 clubs, representing 70% of the top leagues of England, Spain and Italy, currently have Africans in their squads and there aren't too many who wouldn't welcome the likes of Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), and Seydou Keita (Mali).
In fact, Eto’o, the three-time African Footballer of the Year, is arguably the best finisher in world football at the moment. The first African to ever the top the scoring charts in Spain, La Liga's second leading scorer with 29 goals, is now chasing an unprecedented African success in the Golden Shoe award.
African teams need such quality if they're to be successful next year when the experience of five-time finalists Cameroon could prove crucial. Many neutrals are also hoping that the strongest teams in the continent, such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, will make it to South Africa.
As the African diaspora flourishes, the game is also advancing back home, at least monetarily. While the continent's domestic football will always be plagued by inadequate pitches, poor preparation, nutrition, salaries, administration and of course, corruption, sponsors are now pumping record amounts of money into the African Champions League.
A minimum of US$190,000 is received by teams making the eight team group phase, while 1 million USD is claimed by the winners, currently Egypt's record-breaking outfit Al Ahly.
They are spearheaded by Mohamed Aboutrika, a playmaker much coveted in Europe but who stays in Africa largely thanks to the sizeable salary the Cairo club can afford to give him. In fact, his performances have been at such a high standard that he was named the BBC's African Footballer of 2008 in a public poll, beating the likes of both Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Of course, the only way Aboutreika, 30, is going to receive worldwide acclaim is if Egypt make it to the World Cup. The Pharaohs’ are the continent's most successful side, with six African Cup of Nations championships (including the last two), but chase only their third World Cup spot.
Yet Egypt's passionate football followers will also be hoping for something else this year, namely that FIFA's U20 World Cup passes smoothly as the land of the pyramids welcomes visitors in September. And to ensure that this really is the era for African football, FIFA has also awarded the U17 finals in October to Nigeria.
In December this year, the 2010 finals will seem just around the corner as the World Cup draw takes place in Cape Town, whose Green Point Stadium should grace any World Cup finals.
It just remains to be seen which five African nations will join Bafana Bafana in playing there and so add new memories to the continent's World Cup adventure as South Africa 2010 draws ever closer.
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