Football: Egypt in Danger as Glory Beckons Botswana
Defending champions Egypt are teetering on the brink of elimination from the African Nations Cup going into the new year while Botswana are just one win away from a fairytale first appearance.
The struggle for 14 places at the premier national-team football competition on the continent will dominate 2011 with four rounds of qualifiers starting in March and ending seven months later.
Egypt, winners of the last three tournaments and a record seven overall, find themselves in the same precarious position as two years ago with a solitary point from two games.
Facing the two lower ranked countries in the four-nation group, the Pharaohs had to come from behind at home to draw with Sierra Leone last September and suffered a shock loss in Niger one month later.
They recovered in the 2010 qualifiers with four consecutive victories, but a March date away to improving South Africa will test the mettle of an experienced North African side led by veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan.
Botswana, seeded fourth behind 2004 champions Tunisia, Togo and Malawi in the only five-team mini-league, find themselves six points clear after five rounds and three points from three games will clinch a finals berth.
A mix of semi-professional locals and seven South Africa-based players who seldom make club starting line-ups, the Zebras defeated Tunisia home and away, Togo and Chad at home and drew in Malawi.
Maximum points at bottom-of-the-table Chad in March will guarantee the large but sparsely populated southern Africa country famous for diamonds and wildlife a place at the 2012 tournament to be hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Coach Stanley Tshosane is reluctant to single out individuals, but the four goals of Jerome Ramatlhakwane from Cape Town club Santos have been pivotal to the success of a country that has never come close to making the Nations Cup.
The Blue Sharks of the Cape Verde Islands and the Fawns of the Central African Republic, coached by French septuagenarian Jules Accorsi, are other outsiders who made a good start as they seek a first appearance.
Sudan hosts the second African Nations Championship -- a tournament for footballers who perform in their land of birth -- with the number of teams doubled to 16 for the three-week February tournament.
Niger, fielding many of the team that stunned Egypt in the Nations Cup, upset Nigeria in the qualifiers and will compete in a senior African tournament for the first time.
A Democratic Republic of Congo side heavily reliant on the stars of FIFA Club World Cup runners-up TP Mazembe won the first edition and will be favored to complete a double with 2009 runners-up Ghana an obvious threat.
After sauna-like Sudan, Mazembe from the southern copper mining hub of Lubumbashi must turn their attention to seeking a record third consecutive African Champions League title.
Esperance of Tunisia, humiliated 6-1 over two legs by Mazembe in the final last month, are among a field containing 12 winners of the competition as are perennial contenders Al-Ahly and Cairo neighbors Zamalek.
Predicting potential winners of the second-tier African Confederation Cup is fraught with difficulty after no-hopers FUS Rabat from Morocco took the title this month, a year after Stade Malien of Mali were equally unexpected winners.
South Africa and Morocco are the only candidates to host the 2015 and 2017 Nations Cup so it seems safe to assume the 2010 World Cup rivals will get one African tournament each when officials meet late January in DR Congo.
And a month later in Sudan capital Khartoum, two FIFA and seven CAF executive committee places will be up for grabs with Danny Jordaan, among the brains behind the acclaimed World Cup in South Africa, a contender.