The struggle for places at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) kicks off on the western island of Sao Tome è Principe this weekend – more than a month before the 2012 final is staged in Gabon.
African football governing body Caf has decided to switch the climax of the biennial competition from even to odd-number years and avoid having every second Afcon staged in the same year as a World Cup.
It left fixture planners with limited dates for qualifiers and minnows Sao Tome è Principe and Lesotho meet on consecutive January weekends in a preliminary tie for the right to tackle Sierra Leone.
Sao Tome are the “invisible” team of Africa with world ruling body Fifa not ranking them for several years due to inactivity, while Lesotho are back after missing the 2012 qualifiers to concentrate on the national youth team.
The 14-fixture first round will feature an unusually long gap between matches with the first legs set for the end of February and the second legs only in mid-June after two weekends of 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
Early September and mid-October dates accommodate the second and final round of eliminators with the 15 overall winners joining hosts South Africa next January for a second Afcon within 13 months.
Another change in Africa is that World Cup and Afcon qualifiers will no longer be combined as happened for the 2006 and 2010 world and continental tournaments.
The 2012 Afcon contenders — co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Gabon plus Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia and Zambia — get byes into the 2013 second round.
But surprise 2012 qualifying casualties like record seven-time winners Egypt and other former champions Cameroon, Nigeria and Algeria have been included in the first round with several facing potentially hazardous first legs.
Egypt, whose new American coach Bob Bradley faces a major rebuilding exercise to replace ageing stars like Essam El Hadary, Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Aboutreika and Mohamed Barakat, will not relish a visit to improving Central African Republic.
Rwanda are a transformed team since widely-travelled Serb coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic made Kigali his latest African “home” and Stephen Keshi-coached Nigeria can expect a tough scrap.
Troubled Cameroon — whose captain and leading scorer Samuel Eto’o has been banned for 15 games after instigating a cash-related players’ strike last November, were — lucky to draw Guinea Bissau, but Gambia could trouble Algeria.