AFCON reaches the starting line

Tuesday 4 Jan 2022

Following doubts over when and where it will be held, the African football showpiece is about to begin, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani


The football tournament that groups African countries is called either the Africa Cup of Nations, or Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, or AFCON or the Total Africa Cup of Nations. A tournament that has four names is bound to cause all kinds of confusion. But the muddle might be fitting for this particular event which Cameroon will host from 9 January to 6 February.

Cameroon was originally due to stage the AFCON (we’ll stick to that name after its headline sponsor) in 2019 but fell behind with preparations and Egypt stepped in as late replacements.

After Cameroon proved to the satisfaction of the African federation CAF that it was ready to host, the  tournament’s dates were changed twice, first because of fears that torrential seasonal rains could affect the tight schedule, and then because of the pandemic.

The change of dates meant that AFCON, which had started some years back to be held in odd-numbered years so as not to clash with the World Cup, will now clash with the World Cup, as the Qatar World Cup begins in November this year.

Putting aside the mash of dates and venues, AFCON is the continent’s football showcase. The 24-team competition begins on 9 January and will feature a host of Premier League and other European stars.

Too bad not many people will be watching up close. To satisfy Cameroon authorities, CAF agreed that only fully vaccinated fans who also have proof of negative COVID-19 tests will be allowed to attend games. Maybe all 52 games over a month will go ahead in near-empty stadiums.

In this 33rd edition, players abroad were allowed to play for their clubs until 3 January before leaving for the AFCON after FIFA rules stating that clubs must release players by 27 December were changed “in the spirit of goodwill and solidarity”.

That meant, for example, that Egypt captain Mohamed Salah played in Liverpool’s crunch match against Chelsea on 2 January which ended in a 2-2 draw and in which Salah scored one of his wonder goals.

Still, those playing abroad who have been called up for the tournament are likely to miss as many as three rounds of league fixtures, and could miss more amid possible isolation issues.

Much of the focus on AFCON’s possible winners will be on defending champions Algeria and runner-up Senegal. But Egypt too is in the mix for being the record holders with seven AFCON titles, including three in a row, another record.

The problem is that Egypt’s last AFCON title was in 2010. In the years since, it managed to not even qualify three straight times before finishing runners-up in 2017.

The country is depending on Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz to recapture its days of glory. Under Queiroz’s helm of four months, Egypt won most of its games but that included mediocre opposition in qualifiers for the World Cup. Against stronger opposing teams in last month’s Arab Nations Cup, Egypt tied with Algeria in the group stage, lost to Tunisia in the semi-final and lost to Qatar for the third place slot.

If Egypt is to seriously vie for the AFCON, it will be hoping to get the best out of talisman Salah and some prominent foreign-based footballers including Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny, Stuttgart winger Omar Marmoush, and Galatasaray striker Mustafa Mohamed, all of whom did not feature in the Arab Cup.

Meanwhile, Queiroz made some questionable decisions, naming Aston Villa’s Trezeguet to the squad despite playing just 10 minutes since April because of a knee injury.

Ahly playmaker Magdi Afsha was a surprise exclusion. Other notable absentees include Zamalek’s defensive midfielder Tarek Hamed, club teammate Mustafa Fathi and Konyaspor’s on-loan striker Ahmed ‘Kouka’ Hassan.

In what has become the norm, Queiroz refused to directly answer reporters’ questions challenging him on his decision-making. “After 40 years in the coaching career, during which I led many national teams … the team is more important than the players and I chose the best list,” Queiroz told a press conference on Sunday.

 “I chose the players who can meet my expectations. I am talking about the whole team not any one player in particular,” he said.

Queiroz said he held meetings with his assistants and reviewed full reports about every player in order to “determine our needs as we will face a tough competition in the Africa Cup of Nations.”

“I build up my squad on the players who can compete in the tough tournament. We need players who are ready for the tournament as there is no secured place for any player,” he added.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s fourth place finish in the Arab Cup, Queiroz was accused of not paying the tournament enough attention even though it was sponsored by FIFA for the first time and had $5 million in prize money for the winner, ultimately Algeria.

As AFCON nears, Queiroz is again being criticized for not giving the event its due, concentrating more on qualifying for the World Cup, a goal which he often claims was the major reason for his hiring.

A local Egyptian radio show recently claimed that Queiroz only signed on the dotted line when Egyptian officials assured him that AFCON would not be held due to Covid concerns, allowing him to work full time on going to Qatar. The report could not be independently verified.

Egypt could be helped by perceived instability in some of its AFCON group partners (Egypt kicks off its campaign against Nigeria on 11 January. It will also face Sudan and Guinea-Bissau in Group D).

Nigeria sacked their longest-serving boss, German Gernot Rohr, after five years in charge, with Augustine Eguavoen named as an interim coach.

Sudan also fired French coach Hubert Velud following a poor run in the FIFA Arab Cup.

While the axing of coaches so close to a championship can rock any team, at times the introduction of a new face in charge can galvanize a team to do better.

Nigeria also confirmed that four of its players, including Victor Osimhen and Emmanuel Dennis, will not be available to play in Cameroon.

Egypt squad

Goalkeepers: Mohamed Al-Shennawi (Ahly, Egypt), Mohamed Sobhi (Pharco, Egypt), Mohamed Abogabal (Zamalek, Egypt), Mahmoud Gad (Enppi, Egypt)

Defenders: Ahmed Fatouh, Mahmoud Alaa, Mahmoud Hamdi Al-Wensh (all Zamalek, Egypt), Ayman Ashraf, Akram Tawfik, (both Ahly), Omar Kamal, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim (both Future, Egypt), Ahmed Hegazi (Ittihad Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)

Midfielders: Hamdi Fathi, Amr Al-Sulya (both Ahly, Egypt), Emam Ashour, Ahmed Sayed Zizo (both Zamalek, Egypt), Abdullah Al-Said, Ramadan Sobhi (both Pyramids, Egypt), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal, England), Omar Marmoush (VfB Stuttgart, Germany), Mohanad Lasheen (Tala’a El-Gaish, Egypt), Mahmoud Hassan Trezguet (Aston Villa, England)

Forwards: Mustafa Mohamed (Galatasaray, Turkey), Mohamed Sherif (Ahly, Egypt), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, England)


*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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