CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) - The world's newest nation has entered its first major football tournament. South Sudan is one of 51 countries to try and qualify for the African Cup finals next year in Morocco.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011 and was granted membership of both the Confederation of African Football and world body FIFA in 2012. The national team has played just a handful of games but will try and join the elite of African football on its first attempt.
CAF said defending champion Nigeria was seeded No. 1 for the qualifiers, with Ghana No. 2 and Ivory Coast No. 3. The top 21 seeds will gain automatic places in the final qualifying round and 15 teams will eventually join host Morocco at the continental championship next January and February.
The 30 lowest ranked countries will have to play preliminary games to decide the seven who will join the final group stage. South Sudan is ranked the lowest of the 51 to enter qualifying, below Eritrea and Mauritania, who have never been to a big tournament.
Of CAF's 54 member nations, Somalia and Djibouti didn't enter. Morocco already qualified as host.
South Sudan will know who it faces in its first qualifier after the draw on April 27. CAF also said the dates of the final tournament in Morocco would be Jan. 17 to Feb. 7.
In other decisions following its executive committee meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday, CAF also announced Algeria, Cameroon, Congo, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Zambia as candidates to host the 2019 African Cup. Libya will host in 2017.
Algeria, Ivory Coast and Guinea are contenders to stage the Cup of Nations in 2021. The hosts of both editions will be chosen in September.
The African football body returned to a more thorough qualifying format for the next Cup of Nations after curtailing the last edition because of back-to-back tournaments in 2012 and 2013.
Nigeria won the African title last year in South Africa and is seeded highest, with teams ranked on the basis of their performances in the last three African Cups and qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil. Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Zambia and Burkina Faso were the top five African teams, according to CAF's rankings.
CAF also ruled that future hosts of the African Nations Championship, the continent's lower level tournament for domestic-based players, would be forced to suspend their national league while the event is on. This year's ongoing Nations Championship in South Africa has been undermined after the host team struggled to free up some of its leading players from their club commitments.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP