Zambia still basking as 2013 qualifiers kick off

Barely two weeks after Zambia won a dramatic final over Ivory
Coast to wrap up the 2012 African Cup of Nations, countries must
begin the business of qualifying for next year’s tournament in
South Africa.

The Confederation of African Football’s decision to change the
African Cup to odd years means it will be played twice in 12
months, leaving the continent with a packed calendar this year.

Cameroon and Nigeria, who both failed to make this month’s event
in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and are both under new coaches as a
result, aim to start erasing those bitter disappointments in two of
13 first-leg matches on Wednesday in the first round of qualifiers
for 2013.

Africa must finalize the 16-team lineup for the next Cup of
Nations in less than a year while also fitting in 2014 World Cup
qualifiers.

Cameroon travels to Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria is away to Rwanda and
Algeria is another high-profile team looking to bounce back from
2012 failure when it plays in Gambia. Togo, the 2006 World Cup
finalist lost out in qualifying for this year’s African Cup to
lowly Botswana, starts against Kenya.

Egypt’s first leg against Central African Republic was postponed
until June after the deadly Port Said stadium riots, providing CAF
with another complication.

Because of time constraints, Africa’s football body condensed
the main qualifying competition to two rounds of two-legged
knockout matchups, shedding the traditional group stage which
normally decides final qualifiers.

The 14 victorious countries from the first round will go into a
draw alongside the 16 finalists from this month’s 2012 African Cup
and 15 teams will emerge from those ties to join host South Africa
next year.

Striker and captain Samuel Eto’o will be missing for Cameroon
for both legs against Guinea-Bissau as his eight-month suspension
for his part in a player strike late last year comes into effect.
Eto’o will also sit out two World Cup qualifiers in June.

But Cameroon’s football authorities appear to have learned from
the squad unrest that forced the country to cancel a planned
friendly in Algeria in November, announcing that players will be
paid their match fees – the source of the discontent last year –
ahead of the Guinea-Bissau game.

The four-time African champions will also be under French coach
Denis Lavagne for the first time after Javier Clemente paid the
price for the Indomitable Lions’ shock failure to make it to Gabon
and Equatorial Guinea.

New Nigeria coach and former international Stephen Keshi has
focused on developing a group of locally based players after
succeeding Samson Siasia but will still hope to get the best out of
in-form West Bromwich Albion striker Peter Odemwingie – who had a
strained relationship with the former coach.

Zimbabwe will have an almost entirely new lineup under stand-in
coach Rahman Gumbo against Burundi after a host of national team
players and head coach Norman Mapeza were suspended amid a
match-fixing scandal that continues to plague the southern African
country.

Togo’s squad, boosted by the recent return from international
exile of Tottenham’s Emmanuel Adebayor, travels to Nairobi for
their first-leg game against the Kenyans – who have promised to
make up for narrowly missing out last year.

Tiny island nations Seychelles and Sao Tome e Principe – who
came through a four-team preliminary stage before even the 2012
African Cup kicked off – play Congo and Sierra Leone respectively.
In other ties it’s Ethiopia vs. Benin, Republic of Congo vs.
Uganda, Chad vs. Malawi, Tanzania vs. Mozambique, Madagascar vs.
Cape Verde and Liberia vs. Namibia.

South Africa coach Pitso Mosimane, who survived Bafana Bafana’s
qualifying slump last year when Clemente, Siasia and veteran Egypt
coach Hassan Shehata didn’t, will be relived that he doesn’t have
to go through qualifiers this time.

South Africa instead hosts Senegal in a friendly in Durban on
Wednesday, while African Cup runners-up Ivory Coast play Guinea in
Abidjan.

New African champions Zambia reportedly turned down a game in
Gabon and a return to the scene of their emotionally charged Cup of
Nations victory, choosing, instead, to give their players a
well-deserved rest.

Follow Gerald Imray at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP