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The quest for African gold
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

In hot pursuit of a record-extending eighth Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title, Egypt will either reclaim its mantle as the best football country in the continent or wait some more for a crown it last wore nine years ago.
Host Egypt begins on the path to potential glory on Friday 21 June, meeting Zimbabwe in the opening game at 10pm in Cairo International Stadium where a full house of 75,000 spectators, plus a nationwide TV audience, is anticipated.
Egypt's three group matches, which also include DR Congo and Uganda, were sold out a week before the start of the tournament.
This is the fifth time Egypt hosts the AFCON, having staged it in 1957, 1974, 1986 and 2006. Egypt has won the AFCON, the most prestigious sports event in Africa, a record seven times. However, its last trophy was in 2010.
This is also Egypt's first championship after last year's World Cup in Russia in which Egypt ended last in its group and failed to progress to the second round.
After Russia, Egypt ditched defensive-minded Argentinian coach Héctor Cúper and hired Javier Aguirre, who took Mexico to two World Cups, in the hopes of instilling more flamboyancy to the team.
In the AFCON, Egypt, which includes Liverpool star and newly-minted Champions League winner Mohamed Salah, is one of the favourites, along with Senegal, defending champions Cameroon, Nigeria and the North African treble of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
All 24 teams have arrived in Egypt and are ready to battle it out in arguably the third toughest football competition in the world after the World Cup and European Championship.
Fans will be treated to a 15-minute ceremony before Egypt takes on Zimbabwe. An Egyptian singer and two Africans are expected to perform the event's official song.
The opening ceremony is expected to be attended by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who has personally monitored the progress of work, most recently visiting the host stadiums in Cairo and meeting Egypt's national team players, wishing them the best of luck. The government has been deeply involved in the preparations ever since Egypt was chosen to host the one-month-long tournament in January.
The hosting of AFCON, as well as Egypt taking over as chair of the African Union earlier this year for the first time since its founding in 2002, are signs that the country is once again taking up its position as a driving force on the continent.
The tournament, held once every two years, is divided into six groups of four teams each. The top two teams from each group will go to the last 16, with the four best third-placed teams also progressing. The competition then moves to the knock-out system.
This AFCON was initially supposed to be hosted in Cameroon. But on 30 November 2018 the African Football Confederation (CAF) stripped Cameroon of hosting duties for failing to meet organisational requirements. In January this year, at executive committee meetings in Dakar, Egypt was announced the new host after receiving 16 votes. South Africa, Egypt's only contender for the bid, collected only one vote. One country abstained.
Squeezing years of work in just six months was daunting, however, Egypt's Hani Abu Rida, president of the Egyptian Football Association and the Local Organising Committee, promised that Egypt would deliver the best-ever Africa Cup of Nations. “It has been a great challenge for us which we managed to meet in just a few months thanks to the support of the Egyptian government which has provided us with all the facilities that enabled us to meet the requirements needed to bring out a spectacular event,” Abu Rida said.
It helped that Egypt's infrastructure was mostly in place but there have been significant changes. After major renovation, 60-year-old Cairo Stadium has become “a work of art”, according to a visiting African official. Its natural grass pitch has been neatly cropped and the power of its flood lights increased. New seats with special-needs ramps have been installed. It now has four dressing rooms double the normal size and indoor warming-up zones.
Outside the stadium new streets have been paved as part of the enhancements.
There are six stadiums being used in the four host cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez. Accompanying training pitches and hotels are a short distance of one another for easy access. A revamped public transportation system for fans in Cairo should make it easier for supporters to move from one venue to the other.
Commercial and service display areas surround the three stadiums in Cairo.
Although AFCON is being held concurrently with the Women's World Cup in France and the Copa America in Brazil, the African tournament is attracting international attention. There have been 3,000 media requests from around the world to attend the event. Due to the crush, only half those credentials were processed.
Visas upon arrival for players and their delegations have been speeded up.
The tournament, from 21 June to 19 July, will be the first time this competition expands from 16 to 24 teams, and the first to be held in summer instead of winter to allow European-based players to compete in their club matches.
Other AFCON firsts include the introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) starting from the quarter-finals, online ticketing, and 24 training pitches for each team. Six stadiums instead of the usual four are being employed. Three of them are in one city alone, Cairo, another first.
Tournament Director Mohamed Fadl said the country is “completely ready” and wants the championship to be “a tournament to remember”. Fadl has also said he wanted the venues to continue to be used after the tournament ends, unlike past World Cups and Olympics in which stadiums were virtually abandoned.
In its Group A, Egypt will take on DR Congo on Wednesday 26 June and Uganda on Sunday 30 June.

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