CAPE TOWN: Striker Ayoub El Kaabi netted a hat-trick as Morocco stormed to a 6-0 win over Congo in World Cup qualification on Tuesday, maintaining their 100 per cent start to the African preliminaries for the 2026 finals in North America.

Other leading contenders Cameroon and African champions Ivory Coast, were held to away draws on a busy day of action around the continent, as Rwanda, Sudan and Comoros — all fifth seeds in six-nation qualifying groups — were shock table toppers after matchday four.

Qualifying from Africa is a 10-round marathon spread over three years with the nine group winners booking places at the 48-team finals in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

None of the three shock frontrunners are ranked among the top 30 countries in Africa, making their achievements remarkable. However, they will have to wait nine months before they can seek more points as matchday five is scheduled only for March 2025.

El Kaabi kept up the goalscoring form that helped Olympiakos win the Europa Conference League last month with his hat-trick as Morocco made it three wins out of three in Group ‘E’ — reduced to five teams by the pre-competition withdrawal of Eritrea.

The thrashing of Congo in Agadir started with a sumptuous curling goal from Azzedine Ounahi and there were also goals for Chadi Riad and Soufiane Rahimi as Morocco reminded everyone of their exploits at the last World Cup in Qatar where they reached the semi-finals.

Zambia were expected to prove the toughest challenger for Morocco in the group but their chances are now severely impaired after a 1-0 home defeat by neighbours Tanzania. Waziri Junior scored the only goal of the game in the fifth minute.

Africa Cup of Nations title-holders Ivory Coast had their 100pc start to their Group ‘F’ campaign halted in a 0-0 draw away against Kenya, but remain top of the standings.

The match was played in Lilongwe, Malawi because Kenya, due to co-host the 2027 Africa Cup of Nations finals, does not have a suitable stadium for their home internationals.

Kenya had an effort cleared off the Ivorian goalline midway through the second half before Ivorian substitute Oumar Diakite struck the woodwork in the 82nd minute.

Cameroon retained top spot in Group ‘D’ by drawing 1-1 with Angola in Luanda, where Brentford forward Bryan Mbeumo put the visitors ahead in the first half.

Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui conceded an own goal soon after half-time to restore equality, leaving fourth-placed Angola two points adrift of Cameroon.

Also in the group, Diney Borges 10th minute goal allowed Cape Verde to beat Libya 1-0 while Mauritius won a World Cup qualifier for only the second time as they edged fellow minnows Eswatini 2-1 at home.

The Indian Ocean islanders last celebrated a victory in November 2003 when they won 3-1 at home to Uganda. Since then, Mauritius have drawn three matches and lost 10.

Rwanda, Sudan and Comoros steal show

Jojea Kwizera, who plays for Rhode Island in the second tier of football in the US, scored in the final minute of the first half to earn Rwanda a 1-0 win over Lesotho, who played in South African city Durban because they lack a FIFA-approved stadium.

Winning under German coach Torsten Spittler took Rwanda to first place in Group ‘C’ with seven points, ahead of South Africa and Benin on goal difference.

Lesotho have five points, winless top seeds Nigeria three and Zimbabwe two in a group 2024 Africa Cup of Nations runners-up Nigeria and third-placed South Africa were expected to dominate.

Substitute Thapelo Morena scored twice in the second half as South Africa defeated neighbours Zimbabwe 3-1 in the freezing central city of Bloemfontein.

The match began sensationally with both teams scoring within 99 seconds. Iqraam Rayner’s goal after 31 seconds handed South Africa a dream start only for Zimbabwe to equalize through Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Tawanda Chirewa, winning only his second cap.

Benin had gone top of the standings on Monday after a shock 2-1 win over Nigeria.

Sudan, who cannot play at home because of armed conflict in the East African state, triumphed 3-0 in South Sudan as the neighbours met for the first time.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino was in Juba for the opening of the renovated national stadium and saw Walieldin Khedr, in the first half, Yasser Muzammil and Mohamed Yagoub score.

Sudan has 10 points in Group ‘B’, Sadio Mane-inspired Senegal eight and the Democratic Republic of Congo seven in what is shaping up as a three-team race for the top spot.

Comoros, representing an archipelago off the southeastern coast of Africa, replaced Ghana as Group ‘I’ leaders on goal difference after a 2-0 win over Chad 2-0 in Moroccan city Oujda.

Both goals came in the second half with Myziane Maolida claiming his third of the qualifying campaign and El Fardou Nabouhane his second.

Mali missed out on a chance to move closer to the leaders after being held by 10-man Madagascar, who had centre-back Louis Demoleon sent off in the 15th minute of the match played at Soccer City in Johannesburg.

But Mali failed to make use of the advantage and played out a goalless draw. They had only arrived in South Africa 10 hours before the afternoon kick-off after botched travel arrangements.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2024

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