CAPE TOWN – Didier Drogba can expect a hero’s welcome when he returns to the continent for the start of the group phase of Africa’s World Cup preliminaries at the weekend, a fortnight after his Champions League triumph.
Drogba, still to settle his future after confirming his exit from Chelsea, plays for the first time for his country since missing a crucial penalty in February’s African Nations Cup final against Zambia.
But that failure has been long forgotten in the euphoria of his leading role in his English club’s win over Bayern Munich on May 19 and the renewal of his commitment to the national cause for the immediate future.
“As usual, we have put ourselves at the disposal of our country’s ambitions,” he told a news conference in Abidjan as the Ivorian squad arrived from a training camp in France ahead of their opening Group C match against Tanzania on Saturday.
The match is one of 20 at the weekend as Africa begins the race to decide the five countries to go to Brazil in two years’ time.
There are 10 groups to be decided between now and September next year, after which the winners will go into two-legged play-off matches in October and November 2013 to decide the qualifiers.
The Ivorians, the continent’s top ranked side, played at the last two World Cups but on Monday brutally fired Francois Zahoui and replaced him with former France international Sabri Lamouchi – who has no coaching experience.
“I understand the dissatisfaction of some Ivorians. They certainly have reason to doubt me. But in life there is always a starting point and I hope my first time will be good,” Lamouchi told reporters.
Last-minute decisions over coaches have been mirrored across the continent, even with qualifying matches just days away.
Gambia, who host Morocco on Saturday, appointed Italian Luciano Mancini this week while Mali and Senegal have only caretakers in charge after recent turmoil in their camps.
A total of 13 countries have coaches making their competitive debut, including American Bob Bradley with Egypt, even though he has been in Cairo since September and taken charge of 12 warm-up games.
Egypt’s Group G qualifier against Mozambique in Alexandria on Friday will be played behind closed doors because of security concerns in the country following the Port Said stadium riot in February where 74 spectators killed.
Ghana kick off the weekend’s qualifiers at home to Lesotho in Kumasi on Friday.
They share the same group with new African champions Zambia, whose credentials face an immediate test away against Sudan on Saturday.
A second round of group matches follows immediately on the weekend of June 8-10.