The Zimbabwe Warriors will once again be conspicuous by their absence when the football qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup continues this week with several African countries fighting to have a dance with one of the world’s biggest sporting spectacles in Russia in three years time.
Among African football heavyweights that will be fighting for one of the continent’s five tickets to Russia in 2018 will be Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana who launch campaigns for their fourth consecutive World Cup appearances with away fixtures this week against much lower-ranked opponents Liberia and Comoros, respectively.
It is a feat only Cameroon have achieved among the 54 African football nations, qualifying for the 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 tournaments before a saved penalty cost them a 2006 place.
Reigning African champions Cote d’Ivoire travel to Liberia — the country that produced 1995 World and European Footballer of the Year George Weah — who are 64 places lower in the global rankings.
Ghana visit the Comoros, an island state off the south-east coast of Africa and 147 rungs lower than their opponents on the FIFA list.
And while African football “big guns” such as Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana will be flying most of their stars who are dotted around Europe to play in this week’s World Cup qualifiers, the Zimbabwean players, who are based outside the country and those who ply their trade at home, will once again be watching action “from the sidelines” after Zimbabwe was booted out from these qualifying matches by FIFA earlier this year.
Zimbabwe were barred by FIFA from playing in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers after the then bungling Cuthbert Dube-led ZIFA board failed to pay former Warriors coach Valinhos of Brazil his salary.
Last month, the Minister of Sport and Recreation Makhosini Hlongwane indicated that the Government was going to launch an audacious bid to salvage Zimbabwe’s participation in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
He also outlined plans by the State to appeal to FIFA for the Warriors’ reinstatement in the competition.
The minister said the suspension from the global showcase was too drastic and added that although they were filing their appeal out of time, he believed Zimbabwe still had a strong case that warranted FIFA’s consideration.
But yesterday ZIFA’s communications manager Xolisani Gwesela said although he was not in a position to comment on behalf of the Government, who last month sent a team to FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, to ask for Zimbabwe’s reinstatement in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers after they (the Government) had settled Valinhos’ debt, the country was still out of this competition.
“They (the Government) haven’t come back to us regarding this issue, but we are still out of the qualifiers because the draw of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers is already out and Zimbabwe are not in it,” Gwesela said.
Efforts to get a comment from minister Hlongwane proved fruitless yesterday.
Zimbabwe were the only African country missing when the draw for the preliminary round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was held earlier this year.
Meanwhile, seeding means many of the 20 second-round qualifiers, to be played on a home-and-away basis between today and next Tuesday, appear mismatched.
Algeria are 109 places above Tanzania, Cape Verde 93 rungs higher than Kenya and Egypt and Senegal 79 places each above Chad and Madagascar respectively.
However, a glimmer of hope for lower-ranked nations is that they enjoy home advantage first, offering a chance to build a lead in ties to be decided by goal aggregate.
Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, who hopes to win a record-extending fifth consecutive African Footballer of the Year title in January, is a notable Ivorian absentee.
France-born coach Michel Dussuyer said the 32-year-old “has not expressed a desire to rejoin the squad”.
Toure was a key figure as the Elephants finally fulfilled a decade of promise by winning the Africa Cup of Nations last February in Equatorial Guinea.
But he has resisted the physical exertions of travelling to and from Africa since, missing the start of the Nations Cup defence, a drab 0-0 draw away to Sierra Leone.
Cote d’Ivoire will also be without strikers Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou and Thomas Toure.
Dussuyer has called up Roger Assale as backup with defender Arthur Boka, goalkeeper Ali Badra Sangare and midfielder Serge Yao N’Guessan also returning.
While Cote d’Ivoire, who replaced Algeria at the top of the African rankings last week, had a first-round bye, Liberia took an unusual route past Guinea-Bissau.
Held 1-1 at home, the Lone Stars triumphed 3-1 away and all four of their goals in the tie came from Portugal-based William Jebor, who is on loan to a Spanish second division outfit.
“Liberia are a respectable side who beat Tunisia in a 2017 Cup of Nations qualifier,” warned Dussuyer.
“We are expecting a difficult confrontation.”
Ghana will also lack a star midfielder as injury rules out Kwadwo Asamoah from 2015 European Champions League runners-up Juventus.
But two vital Black Stars components — midfielder Andre Ayew and striker Asamoah Gyan — are back after missing a friendly draw with Canada in Washington.
Gyan was chosen by coach Avram Grant, the former Chelsea and West Ham United manager, after a two-month battle with a knee injury.
“It has been frustrating as I regain fitness only to suffer a setback and have to start all over again,” said the China-based 29-year-old.
Comoros, with a squad including footballers who play in the amateur fourth and fifth levels of French club football, secured a date with Ghana on away goals after drawing twice with Lesotho.
Teenage English Premier League reserves Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City and Alex Iwobi of Arsenal have been called up by Nigeria for the trip to Swaziland.
Super Eagles coach Sunday Oliseh, who said he was “shocked” by the recent retirement of Emmanuel Emenike, recalled veteran USA-based striker Obafemi Martins.
South Africa, away to Angola first in the only tie featuring two previous World Cup qualifiers, must do without goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune.
The 28-year-old from Kaizer Chiefs, who is among the best shot-stoppers in Africa, suffered a training-ground knee injury and faces an operation.
Bafana Bafana coach Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba has set his team an ambitious target of winning in coastal city Benguela.
“We have to ensure we win away and then consolidate that success by scoring a few more goals in the return match,” he said.
Cameroon, who hold the African record for World Cup appearances with seven, visit Niger, scorers of six unanswered goals in home and away first-round victories over Somalia.
The closest ties, judged by rankings, could be Benin against Burkina Faso and four-time qualifiers Morocco against Equatorial Guinea, with just 10 world places dividing them.
2018 World Cup qualifiers Second round, first leg matches
Today: Mozambique v Gabon; Sudan v Zambia
Tomorrow: Burundi v DR Congo; Namibia v Guinea; Benin v Burkina Faso; Togo v Uganda; Morocco v Equatorial Guinea
Friday: Madagascar v Senegal; Comoros v Ghana; Kenya v Cape Verde; Libya v Rwanda; Angola v South Africa; Niger v Cameroon; Liberia v Ivory Coast; Mauritania v Tunisia; Swaziland v Nigeria
Saturday: Ethiopia v Congo Brazzaville; Tanzania v Algeria; Botswana v Mali; Chad v Egypt; Gabon v Mozambique (2nd leg) — BBC Sport.