By David Legge
Johannesburg (AFP) – The top 20 ranked African national football teams will avoid each other in the first and second qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup, FIFA confirmed on Thursday.
A spokesman in Zurich for the world football governing body said the draws would be made on July 25 in Russian city Saint Petersburg, subject to approval at an eve-of-ceremony meeting.
Only Zimbabwe of the 54 African football nations will not be included as they were disqualified for failing to pay former national coach, Brazilian Jose Claudinei Georgini..
South Sudan are the lone debutants and must be hoping for more success than when they first played in the Africa Cup of Nations two years ago and suffered a 5-0 hiding from Mozambique.
The first two rounds consist of home-and-away ties decided by goal aggregate, and the October and November matches will trim the field from 53 hopefuls to 20.
Among those expected to reach the third and final qualifying stage will be No. 1 ranked African national team Algeria and 2015 Africa Cup of Nations winners Ivory Coast.
Of the 13 countries that have represented Africa at the World Cup, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tunisia, Senegal, Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa are within the top 20.
But Togo, Morocco and Angola are not, meaning they will be unseeded in the second-round draw, raising the possibility of a showdown against a giant.
FIFA used the July rankings to determine the seedings and the 26-team first round consists of teams placed 28 and lower.
West Africans Niger were particularly unlucky, losing out to Libya by 0.04 of a ranking point for a bye to the second round.
Among the sides the Nigeriens could face are east Africans Somalia or Eritrea.
War-torn Somalia must stage their ‘home’ match abroad while Eritrea are making a rare international appearance.
When Eritrean teams travel outside the country, many players seek political asylum to escape a regime branded “repressive” by various international bodies.
First-round matches are scheduled to be staged between October 5 and 13 and another nine-day period — November 9-17 — has been set aside for the second round.
Teams reaching the third round will be split into five groups of four at a separate draw and the winners after six-matchday series go to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
The best showings by Africa at the World Cup were Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) reaching the quarter-finals.