SHEFFIELD (Julio Chitunda's African Message) - The clock is ticking for the first-leg of Groups B and D of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 African Qualifiers, and fans can't wait to see their heroes in action.
In Mali's Group B, the host nation play Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda, while Mozambique will host Cote d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, and Senegal in Group D.
For eight other teams - Angola, DR Congo, Egypt, Morocco, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, and Tunisia - the race to China 2019 began in November.
And although we'll see some of Africa's finest players battling each other on the basketball court, it's in the stands where tireless fans express their passion and celebrate African basketball on their own terms.
Luanda - with a historic 11,000 sellout crowd in a game between Angola against DR Congo - reminded us why Angola is a basketball-loving country.
Local fans also showed up in considerable numbers at Palais Polyvalent des Sports de Yaounde to see Cameroon win two of their three games.
So, can basketball strongholds Mali and Mozambique replicate fans’ enthusiasm for World Cup Qualifiers?
Last year, Mali hosted the FIBA Women's AfroBasket, and although they fell short, the disappointment didn't prevent local fans from dancing, chanting, and more, importantly, celebrate the game of basketball.
At FIBA Women's AfroBasket 2013, I witnessed first-hand how Mozambique love their national teams (watch the video below). At the time, Mozambique were about to take on Senegal in Group Phase, and the Maxaquene Gymnasium couldn't with demand.
Although Mozambique men's team has played the All-African Games 2011 as hosts, local fans have yet to see the likes of Helton Ubisse, Baggio Chimonzo, Pio Matos, and co. playing together with national team colors.
When I asked Mali power forward Boubacar Sidibe to share his experience of representing his country on home soil, he said: "If all our best players come together, we can beat any team in Bamako. It's going to be crazy, I can't wait to see our supporters cheer us on next month."
As I write today's column, most Groups B and D teams have announced their coaching staff, although preparations are yet to be finalized.
Let the battle begin.
By Julio Chitunda for FIBA.com