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The winner takes it all
Published in Ahram Online on 19 - 11 - 2019

Qualifying for the Olympic Games is the dream of any athlete. Tomorrow, Friday 22 November at Cairo International Stadium, three young national football teams will see their dreams come true after they book their tickets to Japan where they will represent Africa at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Who will be making the journey will be confirmed on Friday when the play-off match for third place takes place at 4pm Cairo local time, followed by the final which is scheduled for 8pm. The games are part of the 2019 Total U-23 Africa Cup of Nations being hosted by Egypt.
The two finalists and the third-place finisher will go to Tokyo. The winner not only goes to the Olympics but will be declared the champion of the tournament.
In between the two matches, the closing ceremony should see another spectacular as was the opening, performed by renowned singer Tamer Hosni.
The two-week tournament reached the semi-final stage on Tuesday 19 November, the day Al-Ahram Weekly went to press and before the matches ended. Hosts Egypt took on South Africa while Cote d'Ivoire locked horns with Ghana. The winners on Tuesday would thus have confirmed their place in Tokyo, joined by the winner of the third place playoff right before the final.
Hosts Egypt are looking for their 12th football appearance in the Olympic Games, an African record. Its best finish was fourth place in Amsterdam 1928 and Tokyo itself back in 1964. But just as important for the young pharaohs is also winning the African title after the senior team failed miserably in their quest at the seniors Africa Cup of Nations which was held this summer in Egypt. It was South Africa that booted Egypt out of the senior tournament; the two are at it again in the junior championship. South Africa has just two previous Olympic appearances, failing to go past the group stage in both of them.
While the Egyptian team's main goal is qualifying for the Olympic Games, head coach Shawki Gharib is looking for a piece of history of his own. Gharib was in the squad as a player that represented Egypt at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984. Winning the semi-final means a spot in the Olympics, this time as a coach.
The eight-team tournament, which kicked off on 8 November, witnessed a low-spectator turn out at the opening ceremony and the first two matches of the group stages. It was only when the Egyptian team stole the hearts of Egyptians with their impressive performance and their fighting spirit that things came alive. Egypt came back from behind twice to beat Ghana 3-1 in their second group match, when they became the talk of the town. They turned Cairo Stadium into a full house in the third group stage match in which Egypt beat Cameroon 2-0 to reach the semi-final.
The last four teams of the tournament — Egypt, South Africa, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire — have all been to the Olympic Games before. But their history differs.
The Pharaohs first appeared in the Olympic Games a century ago, in Antwerp 1920, failing to get past the first round. They took part in Paris 1924 when they reached the quarter-finals and Amsterdam 1928 when they finished fourth.
Egypt crashed out of the first round in Berlin 1936, London 1948, Helsinki 1952, and Roma 1960. It once again finished fourth in Tokyo 1964, before reaching the quarter-finals again in Los Angeles 1984. After a first round exit in Barcelona 1992, its last appearance was the quarterfinals in London 2012.
South Africans are seeking their third appearance in the Olympics. They first took part in Sydney 2000 crashing out from the first round, before suffering the same in Rio de Janeiro 2016.
Ghana, the Black Meteors, have been at the Olympics six times. They reached the quarter-finals in Tokyo 1964, before crashing out of the group stage in Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972. In Barcelona 1992 they became the first ever African side to win an Olympic football medal, claiming the bronze. They lost in the quarter-finals in Atlanta 1996 before exiting the group stage in their last appearance, in Athens 2004.
Cote d'Ivoire, known as Les Elephants, appeared in the Olympics just once, when it reached the quarter-finals in Beijing 2008, losing to eventual silver medalists and fellow Africans Nigeria.
This edition of the U-23 has also seen a historic move for women's referees in the continent as three females have been selected among the referees of the tournament and have proven their worth in the competition.
The South Africa and Zambia game, held at Al-Salam Stadium, venue of Group B, will be dubbed historic as for the first time in the history of the tournament a female referee officiated. Rwanda's Salma Mukasanga was the match referee assisted by Fathia Jermoumi from Morocco. It was the second time in CAF history that a female referee refereed a men's match after the 2019 U-17 AFCON. Mukasanga was also served as a fourth referee in other games.
“This is a historic day for African football, especially officiating, and I congratulate you on the wonderful performance today. You gave a good impression and everybody at the stadium including both teams were happy with your performance,” CAF President Ahmad Ahmad said.
The U-23 Africa Cup of Nations (U-23 AFCON) was created in 2011 to serve as the continental qualifier to the Olympic Games. It is a very special competition with many emerging talents cutting their teeth at the tournament because it is the pathway to the Olympic Games, which is the biggest dream of every sportsman or woman.
Initially christened the CAF U-23 Championship, the maiden edition was scheduled for Egypt, but due to security concerns at the time in the North African country, Morocco was named new host with the tournament taking place from 26 October-10 November 2011, in the cities of Marrakech and Tangiers.
The participants of the first edition were host Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria and Senegal in Group A, with Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon and South Africa completing Group B. Gabon etched its name in the history books by becoming the first champions, beating Morocco 2-1 in the final in Marrakech.
During a meeting of the CAF Executive Committee on 6 August 2015 the name of the competition was changed from the CAF U-23 Championship to the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations.
The second edition was played from 28 November to 12 December 2015 in Senegal, with Dakar and M'bour as host cities. Nigeria beat Algeria 2-1 in the final in Dakar.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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