Africa ready for 2012 Olympic qualifiers

By Nick CavellBBC Sport, Morocco
Tangiers' football stadium
The Olympic qualifiers, which double as Africa's inaugural Under-23 finals, take place in Marrakesh and Tangiers' recently-renovated arena (above)

Three places at the men's 2012 Olympic Games football tournament are at stake when the first ever African Under-23 Championships kick off in Morocco on Saturday.

Eight teams are taking part in the tournament and a quick look at the men in charge shows how seriously the sides are taking the finals.

Five coaches have led their national sides in the past, while another two have been assistants at international level.

Pim Verbeek, the Dutchman who led Australia at last year's World Cup finals, is in charge of Morocco who face Nigeria, Algeria and Senegal in Tangiers-based Group A.

In Marrakesh, Group B features Egypt, Gabon, Ivory Coast and a South Africa side led by former Bafana Bafana boss Shakes Mashaba.

But while leading coaches may be present, many of the continent's top players at this level have not been released by their clubs to take part in the event.

This is because the dates do not coincide with Fifa's approved calendar, meaning teams are not obliged to release players.

"It could have been played in January when it's the winter break everywhere," Verbeek lamented to BBC Sport.

"I cannot understand this decision - you want the best teams to go to the Olympics as they are representing Africa.

"So at this time some teams like Senegal, Nigeria and Morocco will not have their best players available so you never know."

However he has managed to secure the release of several Europe-based players including Abdelaziz Barrada, from Spanish club Getafe, and two others who play in Spain.

But Zakaria Labyad, who plays in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven, has not been given permission to play at the tournament.

Nigeria, with former Super Eagles boss Austin Eguavoen in charge, are also missing a key Netherlands-based player with Ahmed Musa staying to play for VVV Venlo.

Sweden's Player of the Season May Mahlangu, who has not been cleared by Helsingborgs despite the league's end, and Thulani Serero, of Dutch side Ajax, are notable absentees from South Africa's squad.

Instead, former Bafana Bafana coach Ephraim 'Shakes' Mashaba has picked a squad of entirely local-based players.

"We're very confident - I don't see any reason why we can't qualify," Mashaba told BBC Sport.

Morocco's Dutch coach Pim Verbeek
Morocco coach Pim Verbeek has blasted the tournament's timing

"I have always been very happy with the squad and that is why we are where we are. There's always pressure when you go to competitions of this nature and we know it's going to be difficult."

Egypt's team have had the highest profile build-up since they represented the country in the final two qualifiers of the Pharaohs' doomed Africa Cup of Nations campaign.

Hany Ramzy not only took over the reins as caretaker coach of Egypt following the departure of Hassan Shehata but also used the qualifiers to test out younger players who lost in Sierra Leone before beating Niger at home.

Ramzy has a wealth of experience to bring to the job having played more than 100 times for Egypt and more than 10 years in the German Bundesliga.

Ivory Coast's coach is Alain Gouamene who has made a record number of appearances for a goalkeeper at the Nations Cup - playing at seven different finals (with only Cameroon's 24 Rigobert Song having contested more).

Gouamene is upset that some clubs have gone back on promises to release players.

"There are clubs who agreed [to the release of players] when I met them recently but they have refused since I have been in Marrakech," he said.

"Some of the clubs wanted players to come for one or two matches and then return to the clubs - something I refused point-blank to do."

The other man to have coached a national team is Senegal boss Abdoulaye Sarr, who led the Teranga Lions to fourth place at the 2006 Nations Cup in Egypt.

The least well-known of the coach is Albert Claude Mbourounot in charge of Gabon, who do have players based in Europe at Spanish club Celta Vigo and French sides, Orleans, Marseille and Bordeaux.

As well as the top three sides going to the Games in London, the fourth-placed side faces a play-off against an Asian side for another spot at the Olympics.