JOHANNESBURG — Ivory Coast has dealt with last month’s failure in the African Cup by dropping Didier Drogba in switching its focus to next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
New African champion Nigeria will also resume qualifying this weekend without a star, injured striker Emmanuel Emenike.
While desperately disappointed Ivorians not yet over the quarterfinal exit at the African Cup are pondering the future of their team and the 35-year-old Drogba, Nigerians are still celebrating their long-awaited title.
Among the 20 World Cup qualifying matches in Africa for Brazil 2014, Ivory Coast hosts Gambia, Nigeria faces Kenya, and Egyptian authorities are set to allow spectators in to watch the game against Zimbabwe, a significant move with Egypt still traumatized by a deadly riot at a football stadium a year ago.
Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Egypt all top their qualifying groups in the hunt for one of the five African places at the World Cup.
Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi told The Associated Press he dropped Galatasaray striker Drogba because of concerns over his fitness, but calmed fears that it could be the end of the international road for the English Premier League and Champions League-winning forward.
“I don’t know why people keep talking about this,” said Lamouchi. “It’s not the first time that a coach of the national team has left Drogba off.”
Lamouchi did tell the AP that Drogba needs “to work hard to get back to his best.”
Even with Ivory Coast heavy favorite to beat Gambia on Saturday and to eventually reach the World Cup, it’s unlikely that Drogba will ever win a major international trophy with his national team. He’ll be nearly 37 the next time the African Cup comes around.
A joyful state governor gave around $150,000 to the victorious Nigerian players and coaching staff this week. They each also got a plot of land in the southern city of Calabar, where the Super Eagles play Kenya on Saturday. Nigeria rode a wave of joy to the port city after beating Burkina Faso in the African Cup final last month.
“Keshi and his crew must stand to be counted among all-time greats of our nation,” local governor Liyel Imoke said.
Nigeria is expected to top Group F ahead of Namibia, Malawi and the Kenyans.
Egypt didn’t make the 2012 and 2013 African Cups after spiraling political violence spilled onto the field when more than 70 people were killed at a league game in the Mediterranean city of Port Said a year ago — a tragedy that still haunts Egyptian football.
Authorities are expected to allow 30,000 fans to watch the game against Zimbabwe in Alexandria despite the Zimbabweans’ initial protest that the qualifier should be moved out of the country because of safety concerns.
In an interview with FIFA’s website, Egypt’s American coach Bob Bradley called his team’s training camps “a chance to breathe” for players affected by a myriad of problems in their home country.
“We didn’t want to forget about Port Said,” Bradley said, “but we wanted the time together to be our chance to concentrate on how we could build the team and move forward so we would have a chance to go to the World Cup.”
Egypt, a record seven-time African champion, hasn’t been to the World Cup since 1990 but will put itself on the brink of a place in those final qualifying ties with victory over Zimbabwe.
Cameroon plays Togo in Yaounde, where Samuel Eto’o and Emmanuel Adebayor will likely have leading roles, but with both teams also struggling in qualifying and both trailing Libya and Congo in Group I.
Cameroon has missed the last two African Cups and is no longer a giant of African football, and although Togo impressed to reach the cup quarters, it is winless in two games in World Cup qualifying. There is also the chance of self-destruction within the Togolose camp after the stinging criticism of coach Didier Six from Tottenham’s Adebayor after the African Cup.
Senegal must play Angola in neutral Guinea because of a one-year ban for Dakar’s Leopold Senghor Stadium after a riot there in an African Cup qualifier in October. Ghana, another team hurting from its African Cup disappointment, hosts Sudan in Group D, which is led by Zambia.
Group B leader Tunisia faces second-placed Sierra Leone, Algeria goes up against Benin at home on Tuesday, and Morocco is away at Tanzania. The pride of North African football was badly dented after none of the region’s teams made the knockout stages of the continental championship in South Africa.
Ethiopia’s revival following its return to the African Cup could continue with it top of Group A ahead of a home game against Botswana on Sunday.
Group rival South Africa needs to beat Central African Republic in Cape Town with its campaign failing badly and its hosting of the 2010 World Cup a distant, fading memory.