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Winning is everything
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 06 - 2019

The person who once said winning isn't everything probably never won anything. Winning is everything.
And so, with that ruthless mantra as motivation, the 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (now known as AFCON) is about to descend on Egypt. And Egyptians of all stripes are waiting to win.
But 100 million Egyptians cannot will Egypt to win. To take the AFCON, Egypt will have to be better than so-so. It must be better than above average, better than good, better than just very good. In its report card Egypt will have to get an A. It must be the best of the rest. Second best simply won't do.
As the legendary American Football Coach Vince Lombardi put it: “Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.” Truer words never rang louder. To win, Egypt will have to be right all the time.
From the strict vantage point of facts, it shouldn't be incredibly difficult for Egypt to lift the trophy. It has performed better in AFCON than any other country. It has won AFCON seven times, a record, and at one time three in a row, another continental first.
But that is past tense. Whether Egypt can win it — right now — is a whole new kettle of fish.
For starters, let's get rid of the fallacy that a host country has some sort of automatic pass to the title. It doesn't. Eleven countries that hosted the AFCON have won it; 20 hosts did not.
It's worse in the World Cup. The hosts have won football's greatest prize seven times. But they lost it 15 times.
Football is strewn with host countries that failed to take the grand prize on their own turf. The most famous recent example has got to be Brazil when it played host to the 2014 World Cup. The most successful country in the history of football could not reach the final, going down in the semi-final in that extraordinary 7-1 demolition against Germany.
As well, Germany, history's second best football country, could not get the brass ring when it staged the World Cup in 2006.
Back home, Egypt had to settle for third place when AFCON was played with the Pyramids next door in 1974.
The good news is that of the four times Egypt hosted AFCON, it won three of them (avowed cynics are quick to point out that in one of those tournaments, 1959, there were only three teams, Egypt included).
The point is, whereas it's pleasant and all to host a tournament, there's no guarantee you'll have your cake and eat it too. Many times there lurks a party pooper.
Continuing on the matter, hosting is a double-edged sword. The fans have your back when you're doing great but will demand the death penalty when you're not. They love you when you're winning. Off with your head when not.
The Japanese, for instance, because they are a polite people, cheer on their team from the first second to the last, no matter the score. They pledge allegiance to their country, win or lose.
Notwithstanding the Japanese, most sports fans in the world are a fickle lot, but there's a surplus in Egypt where the loyalty of so many people is prefaced, not to the nation, but to the Egyptian pound bill. By extension, their fealty goes only as far as what Egypt can do for them, in this case winning the AFCON. Anything less and the fans will start screaming for their money back.
It should be noted that Egyptian fans also have a tendency to go to an important game hours before the kick-off. They whip themselves up into such a frenzy that by the time the game starts, they are as useless as a wet Kleenex. Hard to galvanise the players when their supporters need CPR.
At any rate, it must be remembered that Egypt was not supposed to host this AFCON. Cameroon snared the privilege first but was later adjudged not ready to host. So if there was pressure on Egypt to win, that burden multiplied after Egypt was selected as the new venue for this championship.
The pressure to win will be unbelievable, maybe unbearable. The expectations will be great, so great that players without the experience to deal with such a cauldron could wilt under the enormous strain.
Many Egyptian players are not used to playing in front of big crowds. The 2012 domestic league soccer riot that killed 72 people forced most league games up until today to be played behind closed doors. Seven years of playing to empty seats has dulled the senses.
Nine players on Egypt's current squad played in last year's Russia World Cup. As such, they have some experience under their belt, but it also means that almost two-thirds of the team do not have this advantage of playing under an intense spotlight. True, these players, whether in their clubs abroad or the locals who play in African club tournaments, do perform to standing room only stadiums. But they don't have the experience of playing in Egypt's colours in front of a packed house, like that of Cairo Stadium which holds a hefty 74,100 capacity. The difference is huge.
Along with this pressure-cooker atmosphere are the countries aiming just as high as Egypt. There are seven countries in this AFCON ranked by FIFA higher than Egypt's 57th place in the world: Senegal (23), Tunisia (28), Nigeria (42), Morocco (45), DR Congo (46), Ghana (49), and Cameroon (54).
Nine countries in AFCON have won the cup at least once. Cameroon bagged it five times, Ghana four, Nigeria thee and Ivory Coast and DR Congo two apiece. They've been there, done that and know what it takes to win it.
However, at least history-wise, Egypt is due. In the 62 years that AFCON has been in existence, Egypt has won the trophy an average of almost once every nine years. The last title was, indeed, in 2010 — nine years ago.


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