May 23, 2016
Going into last month’s third and fourth rounds of 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifying, it appeared Egypt had a snowball’s chance in hell of being a top seed for June’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying group draw. But all-of-a-sudden, the Pharaohs find themselves back amongst Africa’s elite.
Whether Egypt is actually in position to again compete with the likes of Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Algeria is debatable at best, but if things remain the way they are… they won’t have to.
According to the awesome folks at We Global Football (WGF), last month’s victory over Nigeria coupled with results elsewhere in qualifying – involving Cape Verde and Tunisia in particular – earned Egypt a spot in Pot 1, meaning it would be a top seed for the World Cup qualifying group draw as things stand.
Current CAF 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying Pot allocations (points)
Ivory Coast (740.14)
Cape Verde (620.41)
Congo DR (596.37)
South Africa (529.04)
Burkina Faso (479.14)
Looks great, right? Being in Pot 1 would of course mean Egypt also gets to avoid the rest of the teams in the same pot… no Algeria, no Ivory Coast, no Ghana, and no Senegal to worry about.
Not so fast. As anyone that has followed Egyptian football over the decades will tell you, things inexplicably head south in World Cup qualifying just as it seems they’re going the Pharaohs’ way. That alone is worthy of a ten-page dissertation – from groups of ‘death,’ to empty-net misses, to FIFA forcing matches to be replayed, to unprecedented tie-breaking playoffs – but I digress.
This time, just as it appeared Egypt was safe in Pot 1, with no other international matches scheduled before FIFA’s May 28 cut-off for June’s World Rankings, FIFA has inexplicably decided to institute a “special” African ranking for June.
Instead of using the regular June rankings to determine the Pots, as most logic portends, FIFA will now factor-in the June 3-5 round of 2017 AFCON qualifiers despite the matches technically falling out of the June ranking window. This means that the result of Egypt’s match against Tanzania will now suddenly factor into whether Egypt ends up in Pot 1 or Pot 2.
Following the ranking release calendar FIFA made itself, those matches were supposed to count towards the July rankings, meaning they’d have no bearing on the World Cup qualifying group draw.
Yup, FIFA, once again, appears to be making it (or a word that rhymes with “it”) up as it goes along. WGF described the move as “so, so odd” and “one of the shadiest moves we’ve seen in awhile.”
If Egypt defeats Tanzania away it will likely remain in Pot 1, but that also depends on myriad other factors; namely, Tunisia’s result against Djibouti, Cape Verde’s result against São Tomé and Príncipe, and which day FIFA releases this “special ranking.”
According to WGF, “if Egypt is able to defeat Tanzania and [the special ranking is released June 7], Egypt should launch every formal protest measure in existence.”
Why? Well, if Egypt and Tunisia both win (beating Djibouti is essentially a forgone conclusion for the Carthage Eagles) and the special ranking is released June 7, Tunisia would end up overtaking Egypt in Pot 1. WGF explains in further depth here.
Should Egypt counter this by playing some friendlies before their match with Tanzania? If those friendlies are against either Congo, Libya, Morocco, or Malawi as rumored, then the answer is actually no.
According to what WGF tells me, “that would be the worst decision the [Egypt] FA could make.”
And that’s not just because of the risk of losing those matches.
“Depending on the opponent, even a win could hurt the ranking,” WGF says.
I was also told by a source that Luxembourg approached the Egyptian FA for a friendly, targeting May 22. Talks haven’t broken off just yet, but the match appears unlikely at this point. That’s a good thing, for the same reason avoiding friendlies with Congo, Libya, Malawi, and Morocco is a good thing.
While it probably would surprise no one if the Egyptian FA had no idea what affects scheduling a friendly would have on its Pot 1 prospects, let’s make the very unsafe assumption that it chooses not to play a friendly before the Tanzania match. In fact, let’s assume the Pots remain as they currently are.
The possibilities are wide-ranging. Among them, an all-North African conglomerate comprising Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya. It probably can’t be overstated how fiery and intense every match in that group would be. I doubt many fans of said teams would look forward to such a draw, but for the neutral supporter it would be nothing short of epic.
To be clear, with the amount of parity that now exists within African football, no group would be “easy” per say. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t teams one would rather be grouped with than others.
For instance, a group comprising Egypt, Congo, Mali, and Uganda is probably one most fans would take; Egypt, Guinea, South Africa, Gabon likewise. Egypt, Cape Verde, Mali, and Uganda would also seem relatively favorable on paper.
Pot 3 is oddly menacing, and a perfect example of aforementioned parity. Has there ever been a stronger third pot in the history of World Cup qualifying in Africa? It alone could take a group from balanced to deathly. A group comprising Egypt, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Zambia for example is currently in play. It wouldn’t be a shock if any one of these four wins the group. I don’t remember ever being able to say that about a World Cup qualifying group in Africa.
If Egypt drops to Pot 2
If results on June 3-5 don’t go Egypt’s way and the Pharaohs find themselves again relegated to Pot 2, it would be either Tunisia or Cape Verde that moves up to Pot 1.
As a matter of fact, WGF writes that it was probably Tunisia that was behind the push to institute a special June FIFA Ranking. It was the only federation publicly indicating the FIFA decision and it’s the team that stands the most to gain from such a thing. It also has a recent history of lodging protests.
I wouldn’t even blame the Tunisians… I’d much rather have an FA that uses every legal recourse available to it to gain an advantage than one that twiddles its thumbs all day. That said, the decision is still ludicrous, but it’s FIFA that should be blamed.
If Tunisia and Egypt indeed swap places, some group possibilities include Ivory Coast, Egypt, Cameroon, and South Africa. Ouch. Another North African civil war comprising Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Libya would also technically be in the cards.
The best Egypt could hope for as a Pot 2 team is something along the lines of Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, and Uganda. Even that hypothetical would produce three teams fully capable of advancing.
Of course, chances are that the group will fall somewhere in between dastardly difficult and excitingly “easy.”
Mock draw if Egypt remains in Pot 1
Just for fun, I’ll leave you with two completely random mock group draws, one using Pot 1-5 allocations as they currently stand and the other swapping Tunisia into Pot 1 and Egypt into Pot 2. Yes, I literally used folded pieces of paper and separated them into pots for this.
Here are the results:
GROUP A: Ghana, Congo DR, Cameroon, Gabon
GROUP B: Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Zambia
GROUP C: Egypt, Congo, Morocco, Burkina Faso
GROUP D: Senegal, Cape Verde, South Africa, Libya
GROUP E: Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, Uganda
This result actually looks reasonably balanced, with Group E probably earning ‘Group of Death’ honors. Egypt meanwhile would face the resurgent Atlas Lions, against whom it has a history of problems.
Mock draw if Tunisia moves up to Pot 1 and Egypt moves down to Pot 2
GROUP A: Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Nigeria, Libya
GROUP B: Ghana, Congo, South Africa, Gabon
GROUP C: Tunisia, Guinea, Mali, Uganda
GROUP D: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Burkina Faso
GROUP E: Senegal, Congo DR, Cameroon, Zambia
I know what you’re thinking after seeing this one… it’s a good thing my cursed hands will be nowhere near that June 24 group draw in Cairo. Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco were actually in the same World Cup qualifying group as recently as Korea/Japan 2002, and it was every bit as tense and intense as a 2018 sequel would be.
If nothing else, this mock draw underscores how vital it is for Egypt’s FA to know the intricacies behind the FIFA World Ranking, and how urgent it is to leave Dar es Salaam with a win.