This weekend, the qualifying for the next African Cup of Nations in 2012 starts and, as usual, there’s intrigue all round.

The first round of games saw some surprises, with 2010 AFCON hosts Angola, Algeria, Mali, Morocco, Egypt and Togo hitting bumps on the very long road to Gabon/Equatorial Guinea. We had injuries galore, politics, new appointments and the potpourri that makes African football so colourful.

In a guest piece for The Equaliser, Gary Al-Smith runs the rule over the upcoming fixtures and assesses the prospects of Africa’s qualification hopefuls.

Group A

Mali v Liberia, Zimbabwe v Cape Verde

Cape Verde shook the bookmakers with a win over Mali on Matchday One and leads the pack. Zimbabwe are next for the island nation as they try to secure a place at the Cup of Nations for the first time in their history.

After a lot of wrangling within the Zimbabwean FA and sporting ministries, the Warriors chose Tom Saintfiet as coach – while he had not finished his job with Namibia. The Warriors drew their first game with a caretaker manager and the Belgian was set to have his first game in charge this weekend.

However, the Zimbabwean camp was today thrown into disarray with the news that Saintfiet had been deported following complications in the process of getting him a work permit. Immigration officials spoke to the press last night and said of the matter “We have ordered him to leave the country while his application for a work permit is being processed.”

In the other game, Mali’s Eagles, now bottom of the group, host Liberia at the Stade 26 mars in Bamako. Yet everyone is puzzled about Alain Giresse’s decision to leave out his stars: Seydou Keita, Mohammed Sissoko and goalkeeper Mahamadou Sidibe. Even more confusing was that he proffered no explanations.

The team is receiving no bonuses after the defeat, with the accompanying damning verdict of the Malian sports ministry that they were “purely disappointed with the awful performance of the national side so far in the ongoing 2012 Nations Cup qualifiers.”

Sigamary Diarra, the French-born FC Lorient midfielder has been recalled, while striker Dramane Traore of Lokomotiv Moscow and Real Madrid star Mahamadou Diarra should get starts in this game.

Liberia also have their peculiar stories, with coach Bertalan Bicskei making a u-turn on Francis Doe. The former DC United player was said to have been at odds with certain decisions taken by the coach and had fallen out for ‘disciplinary indiscretions’.

Doe has apologized and is back in the team. There is also the small matter of two key players who will not play: Dulee Johnson and Dioh Williams. They also did not feature against Zimbabwe last month for breaking team rules and the gaffer is extending their punishments.

Zimbabwe's absent manager, Tom Saintfiet

Group B

Madagascar v Ethiopia, Guinea v Nigeria

Last Sunday, Nigeria’s players had started making preparations to get to Conakry in anticipation of a crunch away game with Guinea. It was not to be, however, as 24 hours later the FIFA Emergency Committee decided to suspend the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) with immediate effect on account of governmental interference.

It means Guinea could well get a bye – unless FIFA and Nigeria reach a speedy resolution – in what was supposed to be the most important game of the group. Guinea had won comfortably against Ethiopia, while Nigeria had dispatched Madagascar. If Guinea gets those ‘free’ three points, they may well be counting themselves winners of the group.

To be honest, any resolution to the Nigerian situation is unlikely to happen because Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan seems to like the idea of keeping his team out of football for at least two years.

The implications of Nigeria’s troubles will make Madagascar very happy, for it means 2-0 defeat to the Super Eagles is nullified. Ironically, the island nation will get the three points.

The Walya Antelopes of Ethiopia, meanwhile, who play Madagascar, will have to win if they can get anything out of this group. They have played a friendly with a local Ethiopian club and won 2-1. They’d hope to replicate that performance at the weekend.

Group C

Libya v Zambia, Comoros v Mozambique

Problems involving Zambian football authorities mean they need a united front when travelling to Tripoli to play Libya. For a long time, Kalusha Bwalya could not be touched in Zambian football because of his iconic status, but people seem to have had enough, with some even vacating their positions in protest at his style.  And though they are still leading this group – they hit four past Comoros – it’s all playing into the hands of the Libyans at the moment.

Newly appointed vice president of the Football Association of Zambia Boniface Mwamelo: “This will certainly affect the performance of the team. You see we are playing Libya this month, no one is talking about it, if this effort which has been used in this infighting at FAZ was channelled towards the game, it would have been to the benefit of all Zambians.”

Mozambique is yet to win in this campaign and playing Comoros away should not stop them getting their first three points – they drew against Libya in their first game.

Group D

Tanzania v Morocco, Central African Republic v Algeria

Tanzania held Algeria to a draw and Morocco could not beat the unfancied Central African Republic (CAR). This has made Group D very open, with the North African pair not living up to the billing.

After that draw, Algeria’s Desert Foxes’ had to look for a new manager as Rabah Saadane resigned. The new man is 47-year old Abdelhak Benchikha. He takes charge of his first game away from home in Bagui (CAR), not an easy place to pick up points.

“The most important thing for me right now is to properly prepare the team for winning the game against Central Africa, which is inconclusive but remains critical. We must win the game with the aim to re-launch in qualifying.”

Dar es Salaam is Morocco’s next destination and they really need to improve their goalscoring if anything is to come out of their beautiful football. Their opponents are Tanzania, who will feel emboldened to win against the North Africans, especially as their next game is against the World Cup finalists Algeria.

Mrisho Ngassa of Tanzania

Group E

Senegal v Mauritius, Cameroon v Congo DR

“We have received strong assurances from the authorities that we would be paid on Wednesday, no later than Thursday.”

That was Senegal’s coach, Amara Traore, explaining how the 11-month wait for salaries for the staff would soon be over.

“I was told the decree of disbursement of our salary had been duly signed, and I’ve seen it. We trust the authorities. We are optimistic.”

This was last Monday and, this weekend, the Teranga Lions play Mauritius. Senegal, joint-leaders with Cameroon, can move to six points if they win.

Mery-sur-Oise in France is the destination for the DR Congo, but their injury worries make their game against Cameroon an increasingly tricky one. Some staples to have been ruled out include key French-based defenders Larrys Mabiala, Cedric Mongongu and Assani Mulongoti.

Coach Robert Nouzaret seems not to have a firm grip on discipline in the team and it was evident as they lost 4-2 to Senegal at home in Lubumbashi.  AS Nancy defender Nanceen Joel Sami did not join up with the team, claiming that he was not called up while Nouzaret believes it was a deliberate snub by the young man.

The French embassy also refused to grant visas to some locally-based Congolese players.

Cameroon has also been hit with an injury blow to goalkeeper Carlos Idriss Kameni of Espanyol. Three weeks is how long he’ll be out and his call up was a surprise anyway as he has been sidelined from the team in recent times, having been benched throughout the Indomitable Lions’ poor showing in the World Cup.

However their Spanish coach Javier Clemente told reporters in Yaoundé that Arsenal’s Alex Song would be recalled after also being left out of late. He was the only Lion to have made the Team of the Tournament and he’s likely to make a return this weekend to bolster the team’s standing following their initial 3-1 victory over Mauritius.

Group F

Burkina Faso v Gambia

There’s only one game in this group.

When Mauritania football officials pulled out of the AFCON qualifiers due to a “lack of preparation time and financial issues”, Burkina Faso had a bye in their first game. Gambia will therefore be the first opposition for the Stallions.

Gambian football has been on the rise for some time following some heavy investment in youth football over the past five years or so. The explosion will surely soon be evident as those youngsters are blossoming in time for these qualifiers. They won 3-1 over Namibia in their first game and, for them, Burkina Faso – the top ranked team in the group – are just another of the bigger fish to fry.

Gambia’s coach Paul Put is motivation is simple: get the nation its first appearance at the Nations’ Cup. Namibia will not play as they also enjoy a bye due to Mauritania’s unfortunate withdrawal.

Group G

Niger v Egypt, Sierra Leone v South Africa

Reigning African champions Egypt were jolted at home by Sierra Leone as they drew 1-1 last month. This allowed South Africa to take top spot after an expected win against Niger. It ended 2-0 against the lowly West Africans, but Sierra Leone would be a harder side to beat.

Even though there have been reports of dressing room squabbles among the Lone Stars of Sierra Leone, South Africa will certainly lose some depth owing to the injury of Steven Pienaar. In the last qualifying campaign, Sierra Leone won 1-0 against Bafana Bafana and though stronger, the southern side would take nothing for granted.

After a long team-building process under Carlos Alberto Parreira, South Africa is not as weak as they were at the time. The World Cup hosts would also count on the absence of their opponent’s key man, Mohamed Kallon, to work in their favour.

Egypt is on the road in Niamey this weekend and it’s a pretty safe bet that the game will go the champions’ way. South Africa actually spared the Nigeriens as they wasted several chances and, with Egypt – who badly need the points – in ruthless mood, it must be a win for the North Africans.

Egypt are looking to win their fourth successive title

Group H

Rwanda v Benin, Burundi v Cote d’Ivoire

Didier Drogba (who has not decided when to return to international duty)and Salomon Kalou (injury) means Côte d’Ivoire have quite a task in Burundi. Their new local coach François Zahoui’s choice of striker to replace ‘El Drog’ will likely be Monaco’s Yannick Sagbo. After missing the last game with Rwanda, Galatasaray’s striker Kader Keita has also been brought into the fray.

Also injured are goalkeeper Copa Barry, Wigan’s defender Steve Gohouri and Hamburger SV right-back Guy Demel.

Burundi do not have the international exposure that the Ivorians have, but they would count on a close-knit style of play to stem the attacking tide that will surely come. Valery Nahayo plays for Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa and always relishes playing against big names.

“To be thinking about playing against the Ivory Coast and the players that they have is huge motivation for me. I played against them before in 2003 and I was a young player that time. Now I am more experienced and will hopefully be able to do much better against them.

“When we played them that time we only lost 1-0 at home. They had Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and Kolo Toure playing. Now we have more players with international experience and we will come up with a good game plan to stop them.”

Rwanda, coached by Africa’s Coach of the Year Sellas Tetteh, will be expected to win at home against a well-drilled Benin side. Rwanda is the only team in this group with no points to its name and with Côte d’Ivoire already favorites to win this group, it’s really down to the other three to up their game.

With a point each, Burundi and Benin – under new coach Jean-Marc Nobilo – are in joint second place.

Group I

Ghana v Sudan, Congo DR v Swaziland

Ghana and Sudan both have three points after winning their first games, while Congo lead Swaziland on goal difference. Both of the latter two sides have yet to get a point, but it is Sudan that would really feel like they have the advantage. A win against their managerless World Cup quarter-finalist opponents would be a huge fillip, and with their team almost selected only from the top two clubs in the country, Al Hilal and Al-Merreikh, Sudan will be hard to beat.

Congo play Swaziland at home in Brazzaville in the group’s other match. Swaziland are scheduling a friendly with Botswana as preparation and with their few international stars playing in South Africa, it will be a surprise should they beat the youthful DRC. The central Africans are under Serbian-French coach Ivica Todorov – who has coached Burkina Faso and other Maghrebian clubs – and he is expected to give his side a win against the quite naïve Swazis.

The southerners have never qualified for the AFCON.

Group J

Kenya v Uganda, Angola v Guinea-Bissau

As derbies go, Kenya – Uganda is a pretty spicy East African affair. Nairobi should be an exciting trip for Uganda’s Cranes, who fight to keep top spot in Group J after hitting Angola 3-0. Uganda should be looking at a win with much of their European-based talent available: Nestroy Kizito (Partizan Belgrade, Serbia) and Hassan Wasswa (Karabukspor, Turkey). Scottish-based David Obua got some groin trouble while playing for Hearts as they lost to Glasgow Rangers over the weekend. He’ll be undergoing late tests to ascertain the extent of the injury.

Inter Milan’s MacDonald Mariga may be the new poster boy of Kenyan football, but the goals are expected to flow from the feet of their captain Dennis Oliech. He dared to score – nearly did, actually – against Real Madrid in the Champions League and has also been in good form for his French side AJ Auxerre when he scored twice against Nancy. Sweden-based Patrick Osiako and Johanna Omollo (Luxemborg-based), as well as Belgium-based Victor Mugabe (brother of Mariga) all have call-ups and should make this an interesting regional contest.

The atmosphere would also be stoked by news that Ugandan tycoon Michael Ezra has offered the Cranes team $650,000 (that’s 1.5b in local currency) if the team breaks its 34-year jinx and qualifies.

Angola, after a disappointing Nations’ Cup, will have to deal with the Guinea-Bissau without their coach Herve Renard. It’s put their efforts into disarray, but a win is still expected. It will not come easy, for even though they have never qualified for the AFCON, the Djurtus are largely uncharted waters in African football.

Angola take on Guinea-Bissau this weekend

Group K

Malawi v Chad, Togo v Tunisia

2006 World Cup finalists Togo absolutely need to win against Tunisia in this group to lift their chances of a Cup of Nations berth. But Togo would also be casting furtive glances in Nigeria’s direction as they try to avoid a FIFA ban of their own. Togo’s football politics is in a fine mess – particularly after the fallout of the Angola coach attack and more recently the fielding of a fake team against Bahrain.

That fake team fiasco has seen the very powerful Togo Football Federation Interim Committee President, General Séyi Mémène, resigning his post. This followed a request from the country’s President for the FA to put off a scheduled October 16th meeting of the FA’s executive committee.

There’s so much to the story, but as always, it is the fans who suffer again. Tunisia are coming into this game organized and ready to take advantage of any effects of political tension in their opponents’ half.

At the other end of the group, Malawi’s fans have suddenly become demanding after a few good showings, and a home-win against Chad is all they expect. Group K leaders Botswana are not in action during this round and will have to wait for next month’s showdown against Tunisia to possibly become the first team to book a place at the 2012 AFCON, the co-hosts aside.