That the 10 teams for the final knockout round, of the African qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup finals, will be known by the end of the first week in September, following the conclusion of the group stages, is no breaking news.
But the CAF-inspired decision not to allow the continent’s final five World Cup qualifiers emerge, directly, from the league format, as was the case for the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, is one that continues to leave more questions than answers, even now.
Why was a decisive league format – in which the most consistent performer, over a long stretch of games, earns the qualifying spot – discarded in favour of a final ‘home and away’ series?
A credible system that is good enough to produce Europe’s 13 teams and all but possibly one of South America’s, as well as those qualifying from their CONCACAF neighbours, is seen as not good enough for Africa.
It is a decision that CAF’s mandarins have been unable to explain or justify, in the years following it. To be brutally frank, there are no pluses for the current arrangement.
In the qualifying series for the 2010 finals, the five teams that went to South Africa emerged from five final qualifying groups, each having three teams to play.
This meant six rounds of games had to be played before earning a World Cup ticket, except in the group of Egypt and Algeria, in which a rather stormy play-off between the two teams was needed to decide a winner.
For the 2006 World Cup, the final five groups had six teams, which meant an even longer 10 rounds of games.
And with the final round of matches in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers played simultaneously, to reduce the possibility of match-manipulation, it created a qualification process that was generally seen as fair and allowed the deserving teams to emerge.
Concerned watchers of the continental terrain are watching, with particular interest, to see the match officials that will be appointed (some would say ‘handpicked’) to handle the final round of matches, particularly the decisive second leg.
Whilst World Cup qualifying referees are appointed by FIFA, it is not done without the influential input of CAF.
And the rather disturbing fact (extremely frightening, actually) that Tunisian Slim Jdidi, whose disgraceful handling of the February 2013 Nations Cup semi-final between Burkina Faso and Ghana, which rightfully attracted global condemnation, subsequently made the Referees’ shortlist for the World Cup, barely a month afterwards – on CAF’s recommendation – is a worrying indicator.
It is as worrying as the fact that the controversial Tarek Bouchamaoui, who was unceremoniously removed as the president of CAF’s referee’s committee, with just months to the end of the World Cup qualifying series, is particularly interesting.
The Tunisian, who was surprisingly replaced by Sudan’s Magdi Shams El Din, in the months following the CAF elective congress in Morocco, is said to have fallen out of favour with Issa Hayatou, over sharp political differences that resulted during the congress.
“The current World Cup qualifying system is open to a lot of abuse,” said an informed source.
“Whether we want to admit it or not, the referees that will be appointed, to handle the final round of games in Africa, will get their appointments after a lot of things have taken place behind the scenes.
“The control and appointment of referees has been a very important tool in African football politics.
“It is a known fact in African football that countries not in political favour with the powers-that-be, in CAF, often have the misfortune of coping with rather hostile officials in crucial matches, which could effectively end their ambitions to qualify for major competitions.
“It is for this reason that a lot of people who ought to speak out against a lot of things going wrong in the African game prefer to keep quiet. They do not want to put the on-field interests of their countries at risk.”
As a member of the CAF executive committee heartily agreed, in a conversation I had with him, ‘abracadabra’ in the corridors of African football – its mysterious, largely inexplicable ways of decision-making – is just a part of the everyday reality.
If the current qualifying series ends up producing a quintet that is not made up of the best teams that can be sent to Brazil, as I seriously suspect it might, it will certainly not do the cause of African football any good.
It is a particularly uncomfortable, unpleasant thing for me to write, but the harsh truth is that African football, in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, is certainly not in its strongest position to effectively compete.
Just holding on to the gains it has made in world football – rather than taking a much-needed, overdue step forward, to the semi-finals, in Brazil – would be a tall order.
But even achieving that would be very hard to achieve, if the system that produces the continent’s qualifiers does not allow the best to defend its honour before the world.
Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.