The start of the African group stage qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup have been shifted to June next year and will be completed in a five-month dash for a place in Qatar, according to a Confederation of African Football memo seen by Reuters.
The qualifiers were due to begin in October, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a reshuffle in the African international football calendar.
The continent continues to be hard hit by the pandemic, with only a handful of domestic competitions such as South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco currently under way.
The preliminary World Cup competition will now be played in four windows next year, with two games each. The pool stages start from May 31-June 15, and continue in the FIFA windows on Aug. 30-Sept. 7 and Oct. 4-12.
The 10 pool-stage winners will then advance to a play-off round where the victors will earn a place in Qatar. Those matches will be played between Nov. 8-16. The October window this year will be kept free for national teams to use for friendlies if conditions allow for them, before match days three and four of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations preliminaries will be staged from Nov. 9-17.
The final two rounds of those qualifiers, where the top two teams in each of the eight pools qualify for the postponed finals in Cameroon in early 2022, are scheduled to be played in March 22-30 next year.
Lack of testing facilities and poor infrastructure make containing the virus in Africa a challenge for health authorities and at this stage November's qualifiers could be viewed as a ambitious for a continent-wide opening of borders that allows quarantine-free travel.
As of Wednesday Africa had recorded 1.14-million cases, more than half in South Africa, but there are likely millions more across the continent that have gone undetected.
African qualification calendar
Oct 5-13, 2020: Open for friendly matches
Nov 9-17, 2020: Match Day 3 & 4 (2021 Nations Cup)
Mar 22-30, 2021: Match Day 5 & 6 (2021 Nations Cup)
May 31-Jun 15, 2021: Match Day 1 & 2 (2022 World Cup)
Aug 30-Sep 7, 2021: Match Day 3 & 4 (2022 World Cup)
Oct 4-12, 2021: Match Day 5 & 6 (2022 World Cup)
Nov 8-16, 2021: Play-off round (2022 World Cup)