Soccer

Off-field controversies plague African qualifiers

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JOHANNESBURG (AP)

Just three months after the continent's first World Cup was hailed as a great success and proof that African football had its house in order, the buildup to this weekend's second round of qualifying matches for the 2012 African Cup of Nations is dominated by off-field controversies.

Nigeria has been suspended from international football, Zimbabwe is deporting its new coach and Togo will play its first game since a fake team represented the country in an international match, leading to the arrest of football federation officials. In Zambia, a string of resignations from its football body has prompted a government investigation.

''It's a sad one for the players,'' said Nigeria captain Joseph Yobo following FIFA's statement that the country's federation had been suspended because of government interference. ''We just hope everyone can simply come together and resolve this crisis once and for all for the progress of the country.''

Nigeria's participation in Sunday's Group B match in Guinea is unlikely. Nigerian teams, national and club, are not allowed to compete until the federation's elected executive committee ''is able to work without any interference,'' said FIFA, suggesting there was no quick fix.

Africa's football confederation, CAF, has offered no explanation of the two-time African champion's future in the competition should the country miss the match in Conakry. Nigeria won its first qualifier against Madagascar 2-0.

Zimbabwe heads into its Group A home game against Cape Verde without newly appointed Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet, who has been ordered out of the country for working without a permit. He was given his deportation orders at a training session in Harare on Tuesday.

Cape Verde tops the group after a shock 1-0 win over Mali, which hosts Liberia in the group's other fixture.

Zambia recorded a resounding 4-0 win over Comoros in its opening qualifier to top Group C, but that has been overshadowed by the fate of its football association, which is the subject of a sports ministry investigation after four officials walked out. Any evidence of government interference, which is forbidden by FIFA, could prompt a Nigeria-like sanction. Zambia plays away in Libya on Friday, Comoros is at home to Mozambique.

Togo was belatedly allowed to take part in qualifiers following the overturning of a CAF ban.

Now part of a five-team Group K, the Sparrow Hawks face a tough test at home to Tunisia Friday, their first game since the infamous fake team scandal, where a group of unknown players pretending to be Togo's national team played against Bahrain. Togo's interim football federation chairman, Seyi Memene, has now resigned after FIFA turned down his request to push back elections for a new board.

Togo has just two points from three games and is eight points behind runaway group leader Botswana, which has a bye.

South Africa may be relieved that its biggest problems are injuries to English-based players Steven Pienaar and captain Aaron Mokoena ahead of a trip to Sierra Leone in Group G. Everton midfielder Pienaar has been withdrawn from the squad with a groin injury, and Portsmouth's Mokoena sat out training this week in a bid to recover full fitness from his own groin strain. South Africa lost 1-0 to Sierra Leone in Freetown in 2008, a result which contributed to it failing to qualify for the 2010 African Cup.

''We are determined to give a much better account and get a result this time,'' Mokoena said.

Bafana Bafana began with a 2-0 win over Niger to top Group G over defending African champion Egypt, which was held 1-1 at home by Sierra Leone in its first match. The Pharaohs will look to get back on track in Niger on Sunday.

Former captain Stephen Appiah takes charge for his first match as stand-in coach when Ghana faces Sudan at home on Sunday. Milovan Rajevac, who led the Black Stars to the World Cup quarterfinals, resigned days after Ghana's opening 3-0 win in Swaziland.

Ghana is missing Chelsea's Michael Essien, who has taken a break from international football, and injured AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. Appiah also made the surprise choice to leave Inter Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari and forward Matthew Amoah out of his squad.

Sudan impressed as it beat Congo 2-0 in its opening qualifier.

''It is normal for people to say that we're favorites judging by our performance at the World Cup,'' Appiah said. ''But in modern football there are no small teams.''

Elsewhere, Morocco travels to Tanzania and Algeria plays Central Africa in Group D, with all four teams locked on one point after opening round draws. In Group E, Cameroon hosts DR Congo and Senegal plays Mauritius.

Uganda travels to Kenya after kicking off its campaign with a surprise 3-0 win over Angola to lead Group J.

Striker Didier Drogba is again not included in Ivory Coast's squad for Saturday's Group H match in Burundi. Drogba was also left out of the Elephants' 3-0 win over Rwanda last month by coach Francois Zahoui, who is believed to be managing the game time of his leading player after Drogba had groin and elbow surgery earlier this year.

The top two teams in Group K, and the group winners and two best second-placed teams from the other 10 groups will qualify for the 16-country finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

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