Africa Cup of Nations runners-up Burkina Faso return home Monday after an amazing campaign to face the reality that their chances of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil are remote.
The Stallions made a poor start to Group E, drawing 0-0 at home to Congo Brazzaville and losing 1-0 away to Gabon, and the lone point they collected disappeared after FIFA ruled that they fielded an ineligible player.
Cameroon-born full-back Herve Zengue did not meet eligibility requirements, accoring to the world governing body, and a goalless turned into a 3-0 defeat for the Burkinabe.
With two of the six rounds played, the Stallions anchor the table with no points and a minus-four goal difference, while Congo have six points and Niger and Gabon three each.
Burkina Faso face Niger (home/away) during March and June, Congo (away) also in June and Gabon (home) in September and could need an unlikely maximum 12 points to top the winner-takes-all group.
But even that miraculous recovery would not guarantee Belgian coach Paul Put and his stars a ticket to Brazil as the 10 group winners will be paired and the victors of five home-and-away ties qualify for the tournament.
New Cup of Nations champions Nigeria are much better placed as they seek a return to the World Cup having made a disappointing 2010 exit in South Africa after losses to Argentina and Greece and draw with South Korea.
They started Group F last June with a narrow home win over Namibia followed a week later with a precious draw away to Malawi and appear likely winners of a mini-league completed by under-achieving Kenya.
However, difficult tasks loom for Mali and Ghana -- who finished third and fourth respectively at the Cup of Nations -- if they are to survive the first round.
The Malian Eagles are third in Group H, level on points with Algeria and one behind Benin, in a pool that looks like it could go to the wire with the three countries having realistic hopes of progressing.
Ghana are in a tough pool and after slamming seven goals past hapless Lesotho at home they lost by a solitary goal away to shock 2012 Cup of Nations champions Zambia.
Sudan, who defeated Zambia in Khartoum, top Group D with four points and Ghana and Zambia have three each, but a series of boardroom decisions could have a vital bearing on the final standings.
FIFA ruled that Sudan used an ineligible player against Zambia and changed a 2-0 victory into a 3-0 defeat, but the east Africans have appealed to the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Ivory Coast, who failed for a fifth consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournament to justify the tag of title favourites, top Group C thanks to a home victory over Tanzania and an away draw against Morocco in a section completed by modest Gambia.