By Robson Sharuko
HARARE- AFTER an extended break of more than a year, in which a thrilling World Cup exploded in Russia and a number of African referees were banned in the wake of a corruption scandal, the journey to try and reach the 2019 AFCON finals in Cameroon resumes next month.
The first matches of the current qualifiers were played in June last year and the second games were scheduled for March this year but the Confederation of African Football leadership, in their attempts to give the continent’s 2018 World Cup representatives the best possible preparations, moved the games to next month.
However, this didn’t work out as planned as the African representatives – Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia – struggled to make an impression in Russia and the continent endured its worst showing at football’s biggest showcase since 1982.
However, it’s back to matters related to the battle for superiority on the continent and a lot has happened since the last round of matches were played in June last year with Zimbabwean skipper, Knowledge Musona, he toast of the opening weekend of the qualifiers with a hattrick in a 3-0 demolition of Liberia at the National Sports Stadium in Harare.
A number of African referees, who handled some of those matches, have been banned by CAF in a crackdown on corruption on the continent with the sanctions ranging from a life ban, which was handed to Ghanaian referee David Laryea, to one-year bans for others.
Kenyan assistant referee, Marwa Range, who was originally part of the crew that was scheduled to officiate at this year’s World Cup before the scandal broke and shattered his dreams, was also banned for life.
He was filmed accepting a US$600 bribe during assignment in the CAF inter-club matches in West Africa by an undercover journalist who was staging a sting operation.
Ivorian referee Dennis Dembele, who was in charge of the 2019 AFCON opening qualifier between Malawi and Comoros in a Group B match which the Flames won 1-0 in Blantyre in June last year through a goal by Gerald Phiri Jnr, was handed a six-year ban for his role in the scandal.
More than a dozen match officials from more than 10 countries have been sanctioned in the crackdown that exploded when Ghanaian undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas and his Tiger Eye Private Investigations Team produced a documentary that brought to the fore the decay in the game on the continent.
Those banned include David Laryea, assistant referee (Ghana), life ban from all CAF-related football activities; Lathbridge Reginald, referee (Ghana), 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities; Nantierre Eric, assistant referee (Ghana), 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities; Fleischer Cecil, referee (Ghana), 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities, Ouedraogo Dawood, referee (Ghana), 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities.
The others are Salifu Malik, assistant referee (Ghana), 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities, Akongyam Theresa, women assistant referee, Ghana, 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities, Wellington Joseph, technical instructor (Ghana), 10-year ban from all CAF-related football activities.
Another 14 officials were provisionally suspended pending their appearance before the next meeting of the Disciplinary Board.
And they are Bello Aboudou, referee (Benin); Baba Leno, referee (Guinea); Aderito Marida Silva, assistant referee (Guinea Bissau); Daouda Gueye, referee (Senegal); Nkounkou Messie, referee (Congo); Yamba Armand Gildas, assistant referee (Congo); Blaise Boutamba, assistant referee (Congo); Hamada Nampiandraza, referee (Madagascar); Kokolo Fitial Charel Just, referee (Congo); Adii Prosper, referee (Ghana); Isaka Ayensu Afful, referee (Ghana); Anafo Nathan, referee (Ghana); Badiu Ibrahim, assistant referee (Ghana) and Yekey Jerry, referee (Liberia).
Amid all that gloom, African football – whose representatives also came short at the World Cup finals – will be looking for a feel-good story to come and provide a rainbow of hope for millions of the continent’s fans when the 2019 AFCON qualifiers return next month.
The region’s Big Three football nations – South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe – had contrasting fortunes on the opening weekend of the battle for a place in Cameroon next year where the tournament will have 24 teams.
Bafana Bafana, under Englishman Stuart Baxter, impressed on the road in their first game in June last year when they stunned the continent with a 2-0 away win over Nigeria in Uyo with Tokelo Rantie and Percy Tau on target.
Now, they have a home match next month against a Libyan side that showed little mercy for Seychelles in a 5-1 thrashing on neutral soil in Egypt because of the unrest in Libya.
“We have difficult matches coming up,’’ Baxter, who was recently linked with a return to his former team Kaizer Chiefs, told reporters.
"Libya are difficult opponents. They drew against top class North African countries during the World Cup qualifiers. We have a history of falling against teams that we should put to bed.
‘’We need to work on that. Our problem is not technical but it is rather a mental one. We hammered Burkina Faso and went away to Nigeria and came back with a victory. We then lost to Cape Verde. We need to be mentally stable.
“We need to realise that there are no minors in world football. Iceland is no longer a minor. We need to stop under-estimating other countries.’’
Zambia fell to a shock 0-1 home defeat at the hands of Mozambique in the opening round of the qualifiers and will have a different coach, Belgium’s Sven Vandenbroeck, in charge when they take on Namibia in their second match next month.
The 38-year-old Belgian replaced Wedson Nyirenda who quit the Chipolopolo post for an adventure in South Africa where he is now in charge of Premiership side Baroka from the Limpopo Province.
Vandenbroeck was the assistant to his countryman Hugo Broos when Cameroon won the last AFCON title and the Football Association of Zambia president Andrew Kamanga said the national team has to reach Cameroon at all costs.
"I think the assignment is very clear, Sven's first task is to qualify for the 2019 African Cup of Nations," Kamanga said in statements posted on the FAZ official Facebook page.
"That is the prime objective, [but] we are also mindful of the other milestones. The first target is for him to deal with the five games, that is all. [If] we achieve that we come back and re-look at the tournament itself.
‘’Remember we are talking about just qualifying to the tournament, once we qualify, we can talk about the tournament. The assignment is short-term – to qualify us to the Africa Cup.’’
Namibia also lost their first match away to Guinea Bissau 0-1 in June last year.
Zimbabwe are away to Brazzaville for a battle against a Congolese side that crashed to a 1-3 defeat at neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in June last year with Cedric Bakambu, who has scored 15 goals in the Chinese Super League, scoring twice for the hosts.
Madagascar posted one of the best results of the opening weekend of the qualifiers with a 3-1 away win in Sudan and now return home to take on star-studded Senegal’s Lions of Teranga who won their opening match 3-0 over Equatorial Guinea.
Swaziland host a Tunisia side that shocked Egypt 1-0 in the opening round of fixtures while Botswana and Angola, who both lost their matches in June last year, clash this time around.