Essien, Mantorras Lead Wave Of African Stars.
All five African World Cup spots will be filled Saturday in the final round of qualifying games, sending a new crop of African stars to soccer's showcase event in Germany. "It is a matter of honor," said Sheriff Toure, who has helped Togo to the brink of its first World Cup berth. "Many great African players like Abedi Pele of Ghana and George Weah of Liberia did not have the opportunity to play in the World Cup. So we have a big chance to make history for ourselves and our country."
When Cameroon made a spectacular World Cup debut in 1990, beating defending champion Argentina 1-0 in the opening game and advancing to the quarterfinals, 38-year-old Milla was the star of the show in Italy.
After scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over Romania, Milla gained a worldwide fan club by dancing around the corner flags in celebration.
Since then, Nigeria and Senegal have made big impacts at the World Cup with the likes of Taribo West, Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh, Aliou Cisse and El-Hadji Diouf as the eye-catching players from Africa.
Ghana's Michael Essien, Nigeria's Obafemi Martins and Angola's Pedro Manuel Mantorras could be the new African stars in 2006 - assuming their teams get there.
In the closest qualifying competition since African qualifying began in 1958, no country has yet secured one of the five spots in the 32-strong field.
With a three-point advantage in its group, Ghana needs just a tie at the Cape Verde Islands to reach the World Cup for the first time.
Togo, which leads Senegal by two points, will also make its debut by avoiding a loss at Congo. Cameroon, bidding to qualify for the fifth time in a row and sixth overall, holds a one-point lead over Ivory Coast and needs a home victory over Egypt to advance.
Angola and Nigeria are tied on points in their group, while Tunisia hosts second-place Morocco with just one point separating the North African neighbors.
It's no surprise that most of the top Africans play their club soccer in Europe.
Ghana's lineup includes Essien, a powerhouse midfielder who moved in August from French champion Lyon to Premier League winner Chelsea for ?38 million (US$47 million). At Stamford Bridge, he teams up with Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba and Cameroon midfielder Geremi.
Cameroon also has Achille Webo, who plays in Spain for Osasuna. His hat-trick earned Cameroon a 3-2 qualifying victory over Ivory Coast, which got two goals from Drogba.
Togo's surprising run has been led by AS Monaco striker Emmanuel Sheyi Adebayor and playmaker Toure of FC Metz.
Senegal still has many of the players who took the team to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002, including England-based stars El Hadji Diouf of Bolton Wanderers and Fulham's Papa Bouba Diop.
Mantorras, who plays for Portuguese champion Benfica, is one of the stars of Angola's team. He led the country to the Under-20 African Cup of Nations title as a 19-year-old four years ago, and has been compared with Portuguese soccer great Eusebio.
"This is a chance to show what we can do," he said. "It will open up the doors of Europe to other players and give us the experience to play elsewhere - not only in Portugal, but also in Spain, England, other countries."
Nigeria's biggest star is Martins, who made his mark in Italy's Serie A as an 18-year-old three seasons ago.
Jay-Jay Okocha, who has played in all three of Nigeria's World Cup appearances, hopes the game against Zimbabwe won't be has last for the national team.
"I am optimistic about our qualification," said Okocha, who now plays in England for Bolton. "If we make it then it will be my last World Cup. If we do not make it, God forbid, that is how I will end my international career."
Tunisia's roster features Ajax Amsterdam defender Hatem Trabelsi and Brazilian-born midfielder Silva Dos Santos, who plays in France for Toulouse.
Morocco has Talal El Karkouri, who recently returned to the Charlton lineup in the English Premier League after a knee injury.