JOHANNESBURG: Nigeria became the first team from Africa to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, doing it with a game to spare and emerging from the so-called ‘group of death’ after beating Zambia 1-0 at home on Saturday.
The victory, clinched by substitute Alex Iwobi’s goal with 17 minutes to go, ensured Nigeria will win Group ‘B’ and qualify for the World Cup for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.
Only the five group winners qualify from Africa and at least three of the groups will go down to the wire and the last games next month.
Tunisia could have joined Nigeria in Russia next year but despite a 4-1 win in Guinea will have to wait after the Democratic Republic of Congo beat Libya to keep alive their hopes.
Arsenal forward Iwobi netted with a neat finish inside the box in the 73rd minute of an open contest in Uyo after both Wilfred Ndidi and Moses Simon had squandered earlier chances.
Zambia were the only country still capable of catching Nigeria in Group ‘B’ but needed an unlikely away win against the Super Eagles, who have now qualified for six of the last seven World Cup finals, missing out only in 2006.
“It was my goal to qualify this team to an amazing tournament like the World Cup,” said Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel. “I’m proud to captain this team of great players and coaches. My wife is Russian and she and the kids will be in Russia to cheer us at the World Cup.”
Nigeria advanced to 13 points with Zambia on seven, one ahead of third-placed Cameroon, who beat Algeria 2-0 in Yaounde earlier on Saturday.
Youssef Msakni’s hat-trick saw Tunisia come from a goal down to beat Guinea away in Conakry and stay three points ahead of DR Congo in Group ‘A’.
Liverpool-bound Naby Keita scored first for Guinea but Msakni equalised in stoppage time at the end of the first half and added two more after the break with Mohamed Amine Ben Amor also scoring.
Tunisia need just a point from their last game at home to neighbours Libya next month to qualify.
Firmin Mubele scored a 74th-minute winner for DR Congo as they beat Libya 2-1 in Monastir, Tunisia, where the Libyans have been forced to host matches because of a FIFA ban dictated by safety concerns in their strife-torn country.
Ghana, quarter-finalists at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, were eliminated after managing only a goalless draw in Uganda when needing a win to keep their slim hopes alive.
It means Egypt will return to the finals for the first time since 1990 if they beat the bottom-placed Republic of Congo in Alexandria on Sunday.
Failure to do so would mean Uganda can still pip them to top spot in Group ‘E’, with both facing away trips next month.
Morocco need only a draw from their last game to finish top of Group ‘C’ after they beat Gabon 3-0 in Casablanca with a hat-trick by Khalid Boutaib on Saturday to set up a showdown with Ivory Coast, who are a point behind them.
Victory for the Elephants would take them to the finals instead for a fourth successive tournament.
Senegal moved to the top of Group ‘D’ with a 2-0 away win over the Cape Verde Islands as England-based Diafra Sakho and Cheikh Ndoye scored late, while 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa remained in the race by beating Burkina Faso 3-1 at Soccer City.
A disputed goal after just 48 seconds set South Africa on their way to a 3-0 half-time lead as they looked to bounce back from the embarrassment of double defeats by the Cape Verde last month.
Senegal have eight points, Burkina Faso and the Cape Verde six and South Africa four, but Senegal and South Africa have an extra game to play after FIFA ordered their qualifier last year be replayed because of match-fixing by the referee.
Senegal lost the November 2016 game 2-1 but have a second chance at it after FIFA’s unprecedented move.
The last round of World Cup qualifiers will be played between November 10 and 14.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2017