With the World Cup draw now concluded, Africa’s representatives have now put names and faces to their palpable excitement.
On the whole, it is not a death sentence by any stretch, but it seems unlikely that more than two teams will make it through the Group Stage.
Ranking difficulty, from theoretically easiest draw to hardest, we can appraise Africa’s World Cup hopes.
There is a sense of cosmic justice to the Pharaohs’ draw, as though even providence owed them one. Having been absent from the grandest stage of all for 28 years, a return will see Egypt compete alongside Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay.
Hector Cuper’s side first lock horns with Uruguay, who are defined almost exclusively by their staggering strikeforce of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. There is also the wily Oscar Tabarez, under whom the two-time world champions do not seek to win charm points.
They have made it through the group stage in the last two editions, even going as far as the last four in 2010, and will be favourites in Group A.
Beyond that, there is little to fear from Russia or an unsettled Saudi Arabia side if Egypt play to their strengths. However, Cuper may need to loosen this team’s restraints a little bit, and seek to provide support quicker to star man Mohamed Salah.
Absent since 2006, Tunisia will face two teams against whom they competed in 1998 and 2002 in England and Belgium, as well as debutants Panama.
Neither team could be more different though from that time; Belgium have gone from stuffy also-rans to genuine dark horses, while England have gone from potential winners to a youth experiment. A lot can happen in 20 years.
However, while on the surface this looks difficult, there is reason for optimism, if only in the fact that Tunisia’s adversaries are themselves hugely flawed. Belgium have replaced the hapless Marc Wilmots with Roberto Martinez, so a bit of an upgrade in terms of tactical nous and flexibility. However, they have inherited the porosity that the Everton man seems incapable of addressing wherever he coaches.
England have a youthful and exciting crop, but question marks remain over creativity, as well as over manager Gareth Southgate.
Tunisia, disciplined, mentally tough and full of heart, could profit.
It had to be Argentina, didn’t it? Familiar foes now, the Super Eagles will face the Albiceleste next summer.
The rousing friendly win last month perhaps offers some hope, but Nigeria have lost all of their four World Cup meetings against Argentina by a one-goal margin, and will have to reckon with Lionel Messi, who invariably plays a blinder whenever faced with Nigeria.
First of all though, Gernot Rohr will need his thinking cap on to manoeuvre around Croatia and Iceland. Croatia do not convince, and their weaknesses play into Nigeria’s strengths, so it promises to be an interesting meeting to set the ball rolling.
Iceland have seen quite a rise in profile over the last three years, and proved at the Euros that they’re a difficult team to beat, if nothing else. However, they didn’t win their qualifying group comfortably on that alone, and they will provide a stern examination of just what this youthful Super Eagles side is made of.
The open nature of the group makes it likely four points will do, and you fancy Nigeria…just about.
Aliou Cisse is returning Senegal to the stage where he and his set made history, and he has a number of his old mates in tow too. There will be no world champion to upset in the group stage however; Poland are the seeded team in Group H.
Colombia and Japan make up the rest of the group, a pool that is relatively open, so why then are Senegal so low here?
Well, for all their firepower, it is unclear that Cisse knows his best side. His team has also not exactly fulfilled all of that attacking potential with any regularity, and defensively they can be got at from wide. It will be interesting to see how they handle the threats Robert Lewandowski and Radamel Falcao pose in the air.
On the whole, Cisse has way too much to prove as a coach at this level. It is easy to see them struggle against a very solid Polish side, and succumb to the strength of Colombia.
If Egypt’s draw felt like justice, Morocco’s feels like the exact opposite. There’s the small matter of Portugal and Spain, and if you thought there might be respite, they also have to try on Iran – just as solid and wily under Carlos Queiroz as in 2014 – for size.
The Atlas Lions are a footballing force rejuvenated on the continent, and with the suave Herve Renard, they look capable of anything. However, besting the two most recent European champions is not just anything.
Portugal upset the odds with a backs-to-the-wall performance at last year’s Euros, culminating in an extra-time victory over France. Since then, they’ve diversified their attacking approach, and are arguably a more dangerous team…oh, and they have the reigning Fifa Ballon D’Or holder in attack.
Spain rebuilt impressively following a catastrophic campaign at the last World Cup in Brazil, where they failed to make it past the first round. In all honesty, they were never likely to be out for long; such is the sheer weight of talent budding in Spain right now. Julien Lopetegui is his own man, and when you ally the riches at his disposal to his flexibility, you have Spain down as a favourite for the whole thing.
Morocco, for all their defensive fortitude and the nous of Renard, will almost certainly find this nut too hard to crack.