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Nigeria keep Pele's World Cup prediction on track

JOHANNESBURG — At one stage on Saturday a prediction by Brazil football legend Pele that Nigeria could reach the 2010 World Cup semi-finals in South Africa seemed far off the mark.

The 'Super Eagles' were not living up to their nickname as they trailed modest Kenya 1-0 in Nairobi while Group B leaders Tunisia had battened down the hatches in Maputo to keep Mozambique goalless.

It meant Tunisia were three points clear of Nigeria and the 'Carthage Eagles' must have been dreaming of a fourth consecutive appearance at the quadrennial showcase of international football next June and July.

But just when the already poor reputation Pele has for predictions seemed set to receive another jolt, Nigeria scored twice in four minutes to turn the game on its head and went on to triumph 3-2 and qualify as Tunisia lost.

Obafemi Martins chose the perfect time to rediscover the scoring touch that led then English Premiership outfit Newcastle United to sign him by scoring a couple of goals, including the 83rd-minute Nairobi winner.

So Pele, who believed an African team would conquer the world before the end of the last century, may yet be right in his view that the 'Eagles' can go further than quarter-finalists Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal 12 years later.

"With adequate preparations it would not surprise me to see an African team reach at least the semi-finals for the first time and the 'Super Eagles' can do it," the three-time World Cup winner told the Nigerian media.

However, the most populous country in Africa almost blew the chance of a fourth appearance after qualifying for the 1994, 1998 and 2002 tournaments by allowing the 'Harambee Stars' equalise 11 minutes from full-time.

Martins, from German champions Wolfsburg, rescued his team-mates again by hooking the ball past goalkeeper Willis Ochieng to give Nigeria top place with 12 points, one more than Tunisia, while Mozambique came third and Kenya last.

Tunisia, so brave when coming from behind twice in Abuja last month to hold Nigeria, paid dearly for a hyper-cautious approach with veteran striker Dario Monteiro scoring the lone goal seven minutes from full-time.

Cameroon took a one-point advantage over Gabon into the final Group A games and clinically demolished Morocco before a 25,000 crowd in Fes to triumph 2-0 courtesy of goals from Achille Webo and captain Samuel Eto'o.

It was the fourth consecutive win for a team on the verge of elimination three months ago when French coach Paul le Guen took over and his bold early decisions included recalling Webo and making Eto'o captain.

Gabon fell 1-0 in Lome to finish second, four points adrift, with shock 2006 World Cup qualifiers Togo third and Morocco, who have played in the tournament four times, last without a win from six outings.

The final piece of the African World Cup jigsaw will only be put in place next Wednesday night in usually sweltering Omdurman after Egypt striker Emad Moteab scored five minutes into stoppage time for a 2-0 win over Algeria.

It left the fierce North African rivals level on 13 points and plus-five goal difference in Group C where the 'Pharaohs' Egypt recovered from a disastrous start to win four consecutive games without conceding a goal.

Amr Zaki struck just 120 seconds into the first half of a game that saw both teams fluff chances with Rafik Saifi the major Algerian offender as he failed to score with only goalkeeper Essam al-Hadary to beat soon after half-time.

Ghana were the first African country to qualify for the 2010 tournament - the first to be staged on the continent - while Ivory Coast clinched a slot last month and South Africa will be there automatically as hosts.


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