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