Although their growth over the last two years has been remarkable, and they just saw one of their football products win a major championship, Central African Republic are hoping to break important new ground as they go in search of a maiden FIFA World Cup„ win in the next weeks.
Victory will mean further progress up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where Les Fauves de Bas-Oubangui (the Beasts of the Lower Ubangi) find themselves sitting at 123, up eight spots over the last two months and a remarkable rise of 79 places during the last 21 months.
Last year, as the country kept up with the contenders in their CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying group and were still in with a chance of reaching their first-ever finals going into the final round of the preliminaries, the Central Africans rose to an all-time high of 90. Considering the country had been 202 in the world exactly two years earlier, it was a remarkable leap and indicative of the potential of the team that has developed a dangerous reputation.
In recent years, football has been gaining much ground in the Central African Republic, a country of about five million people traditionally associated with basketball. They are now regularly entering competitions and beginning to see the benefit of increased participation, and in the 2012 Nations Cup qualifiers, the team produced some of their best results to date. And certainly a home won over South Africa 2010 finalists Algeria, and two draws with highly fancied Morocco, has elevated their belief that they can continue to achieve beyond their typical minnow status.
World Cup breakthrough looms
The results and improved ranking also helped the Central African Republic to avoid the preliminary knockout round at the start of Africa's Brazil 2014 qualifiers. They begin their Group A campaign on Saturday 2 June at home to Botswana and will play away in Ethiopia a week later. South Africa's Bafana Bafana are favourites to win the group, but it could turn out to be a very even section. They also have a home-and-away AFCON qualifying tie looming later in June against the competition's most successful side Egypt.
This is only the second time that the country is participating in FIFA World Cup qualifiers, and they are yet to win a FIFA World Cup tie, having been beaten in both of their only two previous matches in the 2002 preliminaries by Zimbabwe. That was a dozen years ago now, but the team has undergone significant change for the better during the intervening years.
The two upcoming qualifiers will see the country put out a team now filled with foreign-based players, but the Beasts are unlikely to find a player with the skills and strength of defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, born in Bangui but brought up from the age of eight in France and now in Les Blues pre-selection ahead of the upcoming UEFA EURO. The uncapped 23-year-old has just captained Montpellier to the Ligue 1 title and overnight has become the best known footballing product produced by the Central African Republic.
But he is not the only footballer from Bangui to have found championship success in recent weeks, having been beaten to the gold medal podium by David Manga at Partizan Belgrade. The 23-year-old, who had a breakthrough year at club level in Serbia, made his international debut in 2010. Manga is in Les Fauves squad along with others whose profile is set to continue rising like defender Eloge Enza-Yamissi, who has just won promotion in France with Troyes, and brother Manasse Enza-Yamissi of Amiens in Ligue 2. Another rising talent in the French lower league is big young striker Momi Hilaire, who has been busy gaining minutes with Le Mans and might partner with hulking Belgium-based forward Habib Habibou.
Unfortunately, things have not all been going according to plan as the team's French coach Jules Accorsi left his job this week citing non-payment as the reason. The much-travelled 64-year-old was seen as the architect of the side's growth over the last two years, but it will remain to be seen if The Beasts can become beauties.