ABIDJAN: World Cup semi-finalists Morocco have been handed a gentle path to the 2026 tournament in the United States, Mexico and Canada after the draw was made for the African qualifiers in Abidjan on Thursday.
The top team in each of the nine groups, which each contain six countries, qualify automatically for the World Cup.
The four best runners-up will enter an African playoff stage, where the winners will feature in the inter-confederation playoffs to be held in March 2026.
It means Africa is guaranteed nine places at the expanded 48-team finals, with a 10th side possibly added via the playoffs.
Morocco have been drawn with Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Tanzania, Niger and Eritrea, and with Europe-based stars like Yassine Bounou, Achraf Hakimi, Sofyan Amrabat and Youssef el Nesyri available they will be heavy favourites to finish top of Group ‘E’.
They had a thrilling run to the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar last year, the first African side ever to make it to that stage of the global tournament, and finished in fourth place.
Morocco are the highest placed African team in the latest FIFA rankings, ahead of Cup of Nations title-holders Senegal with Tunisia third.
African champions Senegal face a tougher road with Democratic Republic of Congo — who played in the 1974 World Cup when known as Zaire — in Group ‘B’ and a potentially tricky away day in Mauritania. They also meet 2006 World Cup finalists Togo and the duo of Sudan and South Sudan.
Like Morocco, Sadio Mane-inspired Senegal are seeking a third consecutive appearance at the four-yearly global showpiece, with the nest edition set for mid-2026.
Nigeria and South Africa may each be wincing at their draw after being paired together in Group ‘C’, along with Benin, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Lesotho. Nigeria and South Africa have a long-standing bitter rivalry and will not fancy facing each other.
There is also a mighty west African clash in Group ‘I’ as Mali and Ghana meet. They must also play tricky Madagascar, Central African Republic, Comoros and Chad.
Tunisia have been to five of the last seven World Cups and will fancy their chances again with an easy-looking draw in Group ‘H’. They meet Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, Malawi, Liberia and Sao Tome e Principe. There should be few alarms for them.
Algeria missed out on the 2022 finals in heartbreaking fashion with a last-gasp playoff loss to Cameroon, but will be confident of getting it right the first time as they clash with Guinea, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana and Somalia.
The first two match days in the groups will be played on Nov. 13-21, 2023 and the last two on Oct. 6-14, 2025. The African playoff stage is scheduled for Nov. 10-18, 2025.
The draw was scheduled for Wednesday this week, only to be delayed 24 hours at the last minute without an official explanation.
Africa qualifying draw:
Group ‘A’: Egypt, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Djibouti.
Group ‘B’: Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania, Togo, Sudan, South Sudan.
Group ‘C’: Nigeria, South Africa, Benin, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Lesotho.
Group ‘D’: Cameroon, Cape Verde, Angola, Libya, Eswatini, Mauritius.
Group ‘E’: Morocco, Zambia, Congo Brazzaville, Tanzania, Niger, Eritrea.
Group ‘F’: Ivory Coast, Gabon, Kenya, Gambia, Burundi, Seychelles.
Group ‘G’: Algeria, Guinea, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana, Somalia.
Group ‘H’: Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, Malawi, Liberia, Sao Tome e Principe.
Group ‘I’: Mali, Ghana, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Comoros, Chad.
Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2023