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Spectacular scene, favourable draw
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

The draw for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) put hosts Egypt in a relatively easy group. Egypt will face DR Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe in Group A. Nigeria is with Guinea, Madagascar and Burundi in Group B while Senegal, Algeria, Kenya and Tanzania form Group C.
Spectacular scene, favourable draw
Group D, dubbed the Group of Death, comprises Morocco, Cote d'Ivoire, South Africa and Namibia while Tunisia, Mali, Angola and Mauritania – the latter qualifying for the AFCON for the first time – are in Group E. Defending champions Cameroon are in Group F with Ghana, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
The two top teams from each group will go to the last 16, with the four best third-placed teams also progressing.
Moroccan and Senegal legends Mustafa Hajji and El Hadji Diouf, as well as the world's most capped player, Ahmed Hassan of Egypt, drew from the pot.
This is the first AFCON tournament to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams. It is also the first to be held in the summer instead of the traditional January-February schedule. The tournament will take place from 21 June to 19 July so that the Europe-based players will not miss club games.
The six groups were drawn in a glamorous ceremony on Friday 12 April in the shadows of the Pyramids of Giza, as the 24 teams learned their first-round opponents.
The ceremony started early when former Cameroonian football star defender Rigobert Song descended from an open-air bus together with an Egyptian dressed as a pharaoh until they reached the Pyramids where they presented the AFCON trophy to Egyptian fans. The 141-minute ceremony included many artistic talents, alongside official statements from the organisers and spectacular displays of sound and light.
The first game of the tournament will be Egypt -- who are likely to have Liverpool star Mohamed Salah in their team -- against Zimbabwe on 21 June in Cairo Stadium.
In attendance was Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura and CAF President Ahmad Ahmad, in addition to a number of Egyptian ministers, African ambassadors and top dignitaries. Madbouli said President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was monitoring Egypt's preparations on a daily basis and that the government was providing all the help needed to make the 2019 AFCON an event to remember. He also welcomed guests and wished the best for the players and their teams.
Egypt's assistant coach Hani Ramzi said after the draw that the Pharaohs are feeling comfortable with their pool. “We are confident. We are here on our territory with the supporters behind us, so we have to work hard to reach the final.” Talking about the opening game against Zimbabwe, ranked more than 50 places below Egypt, Ramzi acknowledged that the Warriors will still pose a test to the host nation. “Whoever you play against, the opening game is always a tough one and I hope we will win it,” Ramzi said.
“The big technical difference between teams is not there anymore, not like it was 10 years ago in Africa. Now every team has players who play in Europe so they have the experience to play at a high level. When you want to win a big tournament like the Africa Cup you have to win against small and big teams.”
The chairman of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) Hani Abu Rida expressed his optimism about hosting the AFCON in Egypt, hoping the competition will be “unforgettable”.
“Preparations are going as planned. From the onset, there have been daily meetings between the Local Organising Committee (LOC) and specialised committees to meet the deadlines,” Abu Rida said after the draw.
“The preparations cover many aspects, including getting the six designated venues in perfect shape with respect to the pitches, changing rooms, tribunes and stands. Another aspect covers the various training pitches and hotels that will welcome the teams as well as transportation and accommodation for visiting fans.”
Abu Rida added that Egypt was making history as host of this exceptional edition with 24 teams instead of 16. “It's an exceptional tournament and we pray that God will grant us success that will make every African proud.
“We decided to choose the Giza Pyramids as it is known globally and we wanted the theme to be Egypt the history and Egypt the present. It gives a clear picture of Egypt's role in history and human civilisation, especially since millions of people watched the draw which is a great chance to promote Egyptian tourism,” Abu Rida said.
Moroccan head coach Hervé Renard is looking to win an unprecedented third Africa Cup of Nations -- with a third team. The Frenchman previously coached Zambia with whom he won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. He also won the competition in 2015 with Cote d'Ivoire, becoming the first coach to win two Africa Cup of Nations with different countries.
The Atlas Lions are in Group D with one of the previous teams Renard won it with, Cote d'Ivoire. South Africa and neighbouring Namibia complete that group. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Renard said, “We are not yet ready but we will be. First congratulations for the place of the draw. It is amazing. I came here before in 2009 when I was the coach of Zambia but this evening it is beautiful. It is a good image for Africa and Egypt. I am sure the championship will be perfect; I don't have any doubts about this. The Egyptian national team is a very difficult team to overcome. They are always ready and up to the challenge. We have fallen in a tough group and we have to be ready and to come to Egypt with ambition and respect all your opponents. Our experience in the World Cup [in Russia last year] was great and we played very well but we did not get what we wanted from the World Cup so we have to try to get it in Africa. But when it comes to Africa, it is completely different. Sometimes it is a good thing to have a difficult group because you have to concentrate and do your best especially when you are coming to an Africa Cup of Nations, you need to be ready. I have a good team and I hope to reach the final and meet Egypt.”
Osama Nabieh, former assistant coach of Egypt's national team, told the Weekly, “I am sure we are up to the challenge and we can easily win the championship. We have been the champions for a long time and I think it is time to recapture the title we have not won since 2010.”
El Hadji Diouf called the draw's venue “a good, wonderful place. Thank you very much for inviting me. When I was a player I did not have time to enjoy the Africa Cup of Nations but now as a spectator at last I can enjoy the place and the matches. The start is so good. I ask all African and Egyptian fans to come to the stadium and watch the games and enjoy African football. I want this to be the best tournament of the Africa Cup of Nations.”
As to Senegal's chances, Diouf said Senegal had never won the Cup “so we want to win it for the first time and we will do our best to make this dream come true from the land of the Pharaohs. Today we have great players who are mentally and physically ready, but this tournament will be very hard as we have 24 teams instead of the normal 16. Most players will play a lot of matches and I think it won't be an easy job. For me, to win in the cup you have to play the best. I expect that the Egyptian national team to be the winner as it is playing on its homeland and among its fans.”
Former Egyptian star Ahmed Hossam, better known as Mido, told the Weekly that he was very proud to be invited to such an event. “I think the organisation and the place are fantastic. I am sure that the Egyptian national team will do its best to win this edition of the Africa Cup of Nations as the fans will give the team a great push. I expect that Egypt will meet Morocco in the final.”
The former Burkina Faso, Gambia and Kenya national coach Belgian Paul Put, now coaching Guinea, told the Weekly that he was amazed by the special site of the draw. “It is fantastic and marvelous. I have never dreamt of being in such a place. It is a great experience and I am sure Egypt will be able to organise the best Africa Cup of Nations as it has all the facilities that help it to do so. Our team is preparing well for the tournament which won't be an easy one as we are in a strong group, but we will do our best to qualify to the top.” Put led Burkina Faso to the runner-up position at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, losing to Nigeria in the final.
CAF President Ahmad told the press that he was very happy with the draw “which was perfectly organised” and thanked the Egyptian government and officials that made the event a success. He added that this AFCON edition will be special with the participation of 24 teams for the first time and the application of seven new FIFA regulations. “I am sure it will be great as today where we are all in the hospitality of the ancient Pharaohs and the Sphinx.”
Also commenting on the draw to the Weekly was Namibia's coach Ricardo Manetti: “It is unique. What a great way to combine history and the present with such a magnitude. It is priceless and we are lucky to be here. It is unbelievable what Namibia accomplished. We have been working on this project for many years. It started in 2013 when I became coach and worked with this generation which is now 70 per cent of the current team.” This is only the third time Namibia participates in the tournament.
Manetti told cafonline that he will use this AFCON to gain experience against big teams.
The LOC, headed by former football star Mohamed Fadl, announced that the AFCON mascot will be revealed on 30 April in a press conference to be held together with the African Football Federation (CAF). Fadl said the stadiums will be ready by mid-May. Fadl also said a number of teams had the chance to visit their venues after the draw to make sure that everything was ready.
AFCON 2019 was initially scheduled to be hosted by Cameroon. However, Cameroon was stripped of hosting the tournament for serious delays in preparations. Egypt won the rights to host the tournament after being selected over South Africa.
Egypt is the most successful nation in the history of the competition, winning a record seven titles including three in a row between 2006 and 2010.

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