World Cup qualifying in Africa starts with 7 teams at 'home' in Morocco during stadium upgrade push


When World Cup qualifying starts in Africa on Wednesday, Morocco will be a hub of football action a year after the national team's historic run to becoming the continent's first semifinalist.

Seven teams will play "home" games in Morocco over the next week, but Africa's standout team will not be among them. Morocco's first home game in qualifying for the 2026 tournament is in June.

Morocco has several stadiums of international standard — as befits a country preparing to co-host the 2030 World Cup — when much of the rest of Africa has none and needs a temporary home.

A strict policy by the Confederation of African Football since 2021 to drive construction and renovation of higher quality national stadiums has left 17 of 53 teams in action over the next week hosting games on neutral ground, far away from their fans at home.

It is "totally unacceptable," CAF president Patrice Motsepe has said, that some members do not have a stadium that complies with standards to host international games for national and club teams.

So, Ethiopia opens Wednesday in the western Morocco port city of El Jadida hosting Burkina Faso about 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) from Addis Ababa.

Niger's team will be about 2,200 kilometers (1,360 miles) from fans back home in Niamey — where it has not played since 2021 — when facing Tanzania at the 45,000-seat Stade de Marrakech on Saturday.

Also welcoming visiting teams in the next week are Egypt, Ivory Coast, Libya, Liberia, South Africa and Tanzania for games that do not involve the host country.

The Gambia team will travel about 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) to go to Tanzania for back-to-back games, first facing Burundi then staying for its own "home" game four days later against Ivory Coast.

"We are committed to ensuring that at least one quality national stadium in every country is built, where none currently exists," CAF said in its annual report last year, adding the goal of "ensuring that our matches and competition are safe and healthy."

Even at one of the best new stadiums in Africa — Olembe Stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon — eight fans died in a crowd crush in January 2022 arriving for an African Cup of Nations game.

The CAF push for improved stadiums also aims to raise standards for players, with better playing and training surfaces, plus fans, sponsors and media.

Such a goal is typically achieved with state support and money in Africa where close ties often bind sports and political influence.

Motsepe, a South African mining magnate, has urged governments and heads of state to invest on visits to more than 30 of CAF's member federations.

"It is not a football problem but an infrastructure issue," CAF said in a statement Wednesday. "That is why we need governments to partner with football to ensure that countries can play at home."

Stadium building in Africa often means partnering with China, like the $500 million venue built in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, to host the 2015 African Games.

In Niger, a delegation from the Chinese government met football and government officials in April about renovating the state-owned General Seyni Kountche Stadium. Niger has since had a military coup.

In Ethiopia, building a new national stadium in a project with a Chinese state construction firm has reportedly been delayed by rising costs.

FIFA pointed to success stories with its funding programs helping member federations in Liberia and Mauritania develop their stadiums, which are modestly sized rather than a 60,000-capacity project as in other countries.

Liberia's president is football great George Weah, the former AC Milan forward who won the 1995 Ballon d'Or award. Weah is contesting a runoff election this week.

The aim is for more African teams to play true home games when the nine World Cup qualifying groups resume in June. Each group winner will advance to the 2026 tournament being hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

"Already, progress has been made here — a number of countries are now playing at home," CAF said. "Admittedly, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done."

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