Deaths in the Ivory Coast overshadow the resumption of the World Cup qualifying campaign.

By Mark Gleeson
Tragedy again marred Africa’s World Cup qualification campaign as 19 spectators were crushed to death in Abidjan before the game between Ivory Coast and Malawi.

Some 50,000 people are estimated to have swirled around the 35,000-capacity Felix Houphouet Boigny stadium and, when ticketless supporters broke down one of the main gates, the ensuing stampede of fans towards the terraces caused a wall to collapse and the subsequent crushing of the innocent. Gate officials have been accused of accepting cash to allow those without tickets into the venue, while rudimentary security plans seem to have been overlooked for a highly anticipated match.

FIFA have asked for a report and offered condolences, but this is the second time in nine months that there have been fatalities at these qualifiers, with nine people dying in similar circumstances in Monrovia ahead of the match between Liberia and the Gambia in June.

Sadly, the casualty list around World Cup matches in Africa continues to grow. Each of the last four qualifying campaigns have been mired in tragedy, but a double blow ahead of the 2010 final flies in the face of FIFA’s entreaties about seeking to improve the organization of the game on the continent.

Despite the latest tragedy, the match between the Ivorians and Malawi went ahead, with officials afraid that a cancellation would create more problems.

The game eventually saw Didier Drogba lead an inspired performance as the Elephants hammered five past their hapless opponents. The Chelsea striker scored twice himself in his first match of the qualifiers, having missed the first six games last year because of a knee injury.

The Ivorians are red-hot favourites to win their group in the third and final qualifying stage, a status matched only by Egypt.

However, the reigning African champions were far from convincing in their opening game at home to Zambia. The visitors fought back in the second half against their star-studded hosts to equalise from a simple corner routine through Francis Kasonde after Amr Zaki had give the Pharaohs a half-time lead.

Nigeria were also held to a draw, 0-0 in Mozambique, while Cameroon lost 1-0 to Togo as Emmanuel Adebayor won his personal rivalry with Samuel Eto’o.

It was the dream start for Togo’s new Belgian coach Jean Thissen, whose side were forced to play their “home” game in Accra, Ghana, due to a ban on the use of the stadium in country’s capital, Lome.

Adebayor hadn’t been expected to play because of a six-week lay-off with a hamstring injury. But he show no ill effects to score an early goal and could even afford the luxury of hitting a second-half penalty against the Cameroon crossbar.

“In our next game against Gabon we need to really perform,” said the Arsenal star afterwards. “It will not be easy, but then nothing is certain in football.”

Gabon, meanwhile, were responsible for the opening round’s biggest upset as they beat Morocco 2-1 in Casablanca.

Two goals up at half-time, Alain Giresse’s side held on for a narrow 2-1 victory. “For us it was the perfect performance. To take on a team of that level and beat them was great,” said the former France midfield maestro.

Gabon’s opening goal came from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is on loan at French second division side Dijon from Milan. Even though the 19-year-old’s father is a former captain of the Gabon national side, Paris-born Aubameyang had declined all previous invitations from Giresse and, one month earlier, even made a second-half substitute appearance for France Under-21s in a friendly against Tunisia.

Tunisia also triumphed 2-1 away from home, beating Kenya, who had only appointed new coach Antoine Hey the week before and were caught by defensive lapses.

Sudan, who were also playing their first match under a new coach, Stephen Constantine, drew 1-1 at home to Mali.