Excitement is mounting among Africa’s soccer mad fans as the 32nd edition of the African Cup of Nations which kicked off in Egypt last month, nears conclusion. Who will be celebrating in Cairo on the (probably) sultry Egyptian evening of the 19th of July? We look back at this preview by Michael Renouf .
The 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) will kicked off on 21 June when hosts Egypt face Zimbabwe in the Cairo International Stadium and more than 70,000 fans had the chance to attend the opening game of the first AFCON.
The continental tournament will come to an end in the same stadium on the 19 July with the final, the 52nd game of the tournament and a new champion of Africa will be crowned for the 32nd time.
The AFCON has come a long way since it was first held over 60 years ago in 1957, when the majority of African countries were still under colonial rule.
That first tournament, held in Sudan, had only four entrants and a total of just two games. As well as the hosts, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa made up the numbers but because of South Africa’s insistence on picking only white players due to their Apartheid policy, they were soon disqualified. This gave Ethiopia a bye to the final where they succumbed by a score of 4-0 to give this year’s host the first of their record breaking seven titles.
On that occasion, like this year’s edition, the original host nation was substituted – but back then it was moved from rather than to Egypt because of the Suez Canal crisis.
Until November last year, travelling fans were making plans to visit Cameroon. The five times African champions and the African team that lit up the 1990 Italia World Cup with their stunning run to the quarter finals where they only fell 3-2 after extra time to a Gary Lineker inspired England. The Indomitable Lions were stripped of host status by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) due to building delays and security fears.
In January, Egypt won the vote 16-1 (with 1 abstention) against South Africa for the right to host the tournament for a fifth time – another record. As well as the location, the dates were also changed; the tournament was originally planned to be contested from the 15 June to 13 July but has been rescheduled due to Ramadan.
The Pharaohs have chosen six stadiums from four different cities for the action. In Cairo the three arenas are the previously mentioned Cairo International Stadium along with the 30 June Stadium and Al Salam Stadium. The other three stadiums are in Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia all rather unimaginatively named after the cities in which they are located.
Biggest version yet
2019 will be the biggest version ever with 24 nations competing to take home the title – an increase from the 16 finalists in the 2017 version in Gabon. Amongst the field will be three debutants: Burundi, Mauritania and the island nation of Madagascar. They are all considered outsiders to lift the trophy at their first finals – but as they say, anything can happen in football!
Also competing are 10 previous winners including hosts Egypt and current champions Cameroon. The other eight are multi winners DR Congo and Cote D’Ivoire with two titles apiece: Nigeria with three plus Ghana who have been triumphant on four occasions. The countries that have entered the winners circle on one solitary occasion are Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and South Africa.
The teams are split into six groups of four and the top two from each group will go through to the knockout stages along with the 4 best third placed teams.
Each game in the sudden death section must be settled on the day as any game that is all square at the end of 90 minutes will go to 30 minutes of extra time and if the two combatants still cannot be separated we will then have the agony and the ecstasy of the penalty shootout. This applies to all the games after the group stages except one – the third place play off. If the game nobody wants to play ends in a draw it will go straight to the shoot-out from 12 yards.
The controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will be used for the first time in the history of the tournament, but whether you are for or against this new innovation, the way in which it is being utilised is truly bizarre – it will only be used from the quarter finals onwards. Think about that for a moment, say Senegal are playing Algeria in their group game and score an offside goal and it as allowed by the referee but later on in the tournament the same two sides meet and the exact same thing happens but with Algeria scoring and this time VAR disallows it, how will that go down in Algiers?
Group of death
Like all good international football tournaments there is a ‘group of death’ and this year’s it is appropriately enough group D consisting of Ivory Coast, Morocco, South Africa and Namibia.
Who will be celebrating in Cairo on the (probably) sultry Egyptian evening of the 19th of July?
If you are looking to pick a first-time winner, Senegal with the in-form Sadio Mane are in with a strong shout. From the ranks of the teams that have in the past basked in the glory of being champions Tunisia and Morocco cannot be ruled out, but for me the two teams who standout from those that have previously held the trophy aloft are Ghana – who have reached the last four on each and every one of the last six editions of the AFCON – and Egypt who are the tournament favourites.
That might seem the easy pick, but they do have everything going for them. They have the history (most titles), they are hosts and they have a certain Mohamed Salah amongst their ranks however if, and it’s a big if, their opponents can stop the Liverpool man, we will see if they actually have a plan B to try and capture the magnificent crown for an eighth time.