(MENAFN- Khaleej Times) Published: Tue 19 Sep 2023, 4:22 PM
World Cup history makers Morocco will host minnows Eritrea -- 181 places lower in the Fifa rankings -- when they start their quest for a place at the 2026 tournament.
The first two of 10 matchdays in Africa are scheduled for November 13-21 and, after Eritrea, the first semi-finalists from Africa face a potentially tricky visit to improving Tanzania.
Last December in Qatar, Morocco became only the third country outside of Europe and South America to reach the World Cup semi-finals, emulating the United States and South Korea.
They shocked Belgium and held Croatia in the group stage, then eliminated Spain and Portugal in knockout matches before falling to France.
In 16 pre-Qatar World Cup matches spanning five tournaments, Morocco had won only two and suffered nine defeats.
Morocco were given little chance of surviving the first round in Qatar, especially after a late change of coaches with local Walid Regragui succeeding Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic.
But Yassine Bounou, Achraf Hakimi, Sofyan Amrabat, Hakim Ziyech and Youssef en-Nesyri inspired their teammates to defy the odds.
Apart from Eritrea and Tanzania, Morocco will face Zambia, Congo Brazzaville and Niger in Group E, with the team topping the final standings qualifying for the finals.
Morocco should justify being the top seeds in the mini-league, which stretches from November to October 2025, with Patson Daka-inspired Zambia and Tanzania probably the biggest threats.
Egypt, reigning African champions Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Algeria, Tunisia and Mali are the other countries seeded to top final tables and qualify automatically.
Like Morocco, they will kick off their campaigns at home to the lowest ranked side in the group, then visit the team ranked fourth.
Seeding was based on the Fifa rankings, and Mali are the only top seeds not to have featured at a World Cup.
Cameroon lead the way with eight appearances and have been drawn with Cape Verde, Angola, Libya, Eswatini and Mauritius in Group D.
Nigeria, six-time qualifiers but shock absentees from Qatar after losing a play-off against arch rivals Ghana, could find South Africa and Zimbabwe troublesome Group C rivals.
Ghana are set to pose the biggest challenge to Mali in Group I, which also includes Madagascar, the Central African Republic, the Comoros and Chad.
Democratic Republic of Congo, the first sub-Saharan qualifiers for the World Cup in 1974 when the country was called Zaire, are capable of testing Group B favourites Senegal.
Algeria, missing from Qatar after a play-off loss to Cameroon, will probably view unpredictable Guinea as the nation most likely to upset them in Group G.
Competition for places at the finals in Canada, Mexico and the United States does not end with the nine group winners.
The best four runners-up go into play-offs and the winners enter a six-team inter-continental tournament with two World Cup places up for grabs.
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