Egypt, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso are Africa's surprise challengers for a place at the World Cup when the final playoffs begin this weekend.
Among the more traditional favorites to make it to Brazil next year are Ivory Coast, continental champion Nigeria and 2010 quarterfinalist Ghana. However, they still have to come through tricky final tests at the end of a two-year qualifying competition, when the continent's five berths will ultimately be decided by 10 home-and-away ties.
If it was needed, Burkina Faso and Cameroon have provided reminders of how seriously teams take World Cup qualification: Burkina Faso authorities arrested two Algerian reporters on suspicion of "spying" on a stadium ahead of their playoff, and Cameroon's president intervened to convince striker Samuel Eto'o to change his mind on international retirement and play against Tunisia.
Of all the teams left, conflict-racked Egypt's story is perhaps the most eye-catching.
Under former United States coach Bob Bradley, Egypt's players have overcome ongoing violence to be on the cusp of a first World Cup appearance in 24 years and only a third ever, a remarkably barren record at the showpiece for the record seven-time African champion. Egypt won all six of its group qualifiers, the only team of 40 with a perfect record.
Galvanized to put decades of World Cup disappointment behind it and give a fractured country something positive, Egypt needs to beat Africa's best-performing team from the last World Cup, Ghana, which is boosted by the return to international competition of Michael Essien and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, although Kevin-Prince Boateng is injured for the first leg.
Despite missing the last two African Cups, a return to the World Cup was always the No. 1 goal for Egypt, according to Bradley.
"It is the dream of all the (Egyptian) people," he said.
The first leg is in Ghana on Tuesday. November's second leg was scheduled for Cairo, although Ghana has asked FIFA to reconsider the violence-hit capital as a venue for that crucial second game.
Ethiopia and Burkina Faso are both looking for their first appearance at the World Cup, having lived up to Africa's tradition of providing unpredictable and at times chaotic qualifying. Both were stripped of points for fielding ineligible players in their group campaign, but advanced anyway.
Ethiopia, which qualified for a major tournament for the first time in three decades to go to this year's African Cup, has to beat African champion Nigeria and its array of Europe-based talent which includes Chelsea's John Obi Mikel, Liverpool's Victor Moses and this year's Cup of Nations top-scorer, Emmanuel Emenike.
Ethiopia does not have big-name players to match them, and is without injured striker Getaneh Kebede, but has plenty of spirit. The tie begins on Sunday in Addis Ababa.
"It's not always the strong side that wins," Ethiopia coach Sewnet Bishaw said.
Burkina Faso didn't qualify for any major tournament until 1998, and made rapid progress this year to reach the final of the African Cup. The Burkinabes host Algeria in the first leg of their playoff on Saturday and may have become a little overexcited.
Two Algerian reporters were arrested for spying in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou over the weekend, reportedly for taking photographs of the match stadium. They were later released. Seven commercial airliners are expected to arrive in Burkina Faso carrying the Algerian team and its supporters.
Cameroon captain and leading scorer Samuel Eto'o made a dramatic turnabout to be available against Tunisia weeks after saying he was retiring from internationals. He has made similar threats before, but was convinced to return this time after meeting a representative of Cameroon President Paul Biya.
"We must fulfill our missions to our country even if we have all the problems in the world," Eto'o, who had retired for personal reasons, said after the meeting.
Tunisia has to quickly unite under new coach Ruud Krol having been reinstated into the playoffs in place of Cape Verde, which was sanctioned for an ineligible player and thrown out.
"Tunisia gained a second chance which it must seize with both hands," former Dutch World Cup player Krol said.
Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast cruised into the playoffs, yet faces a heated meeting with West African rival Senegal. The teams' tie has revived memories of their African Cup qualifier a year ago, which was abandoned amid a fan riot in Dakar with the Ivorians set to eliminate the Senegalese.
Senegal wants revenge, starting with Saturday's first leg in Abidjan, while an Ivory Coast failure would deny the 35-year-old Drogba -- one of the continent's great players -- what's expected to be his farewell World Cup.
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