What would you have at a café in Cairo from now until mid-July?
Mo Salah tea, of course. It’s a beverage that’s become popular ahead of the Egypt’s hosting of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), and a subtle hint about how large Liverpool’s star looms over this year’s tournament.
“When we needed someone to lift this nation in the mid-2000s, Mohammed Aboutrika rose to the occasion and cemented his legendary status,” former Spurs player Ahmed ‘Mido’ Hossam said last month of the time when Egypt won three consecutive AFCON titles between 2006 and 2010.
That’s what Salah must be feeling now, because he’s almost on that Aboutrika level.
No pressure, then, for the 27-year-old Champions League winner or his coach, the Mexican Javier Aguirre. Historically, Egypt have never been shy of appointing foreign coaches, but they’ve done two in a row now, something not seen since German duo (Dettmar Cramer, Burkhard Pape) between 1971 and 1977.
“Before Aguirre, we had Hector Héctor Cúper from Argentina. Considering we’ve never had coaches from South or Central America before now, this probably points to a thinking that we want to change how we play,” Hamada Bastan, a football historian, tells Eurosport.
Egypt’s traditionally expansive style gave way to Cúper’s pragmatic style that won games, took the team to the last AFCON final and secured a spot at the World Cup in Russia, but local fans want a return to the old ways.
The political backdrop
It’s been a hectic month of bad press for the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the continent’s football governing body, meaning that this AFCON will provide welcome relief – in particular, for its President Ahmad.
On May 31, in the Tunisian port city of Radès, the African Champions League final descended into farce. In Africa, continental club competition finals are played over two legs, and this was the second. Home side Esperance were crowned champions after VAR malfunctioned, failed to adjudicate on whether a goal scored by Wydad Casablanca, the visiting team, was legitimate or not.
Football players of Wydad Casablanca abandon the field during the CAF (Confederation of African Football) Champions league final match between Esperance and Wydad Casablanca at Stade Olympique de Rades in Rades, Tunisia on June 1, 2019.
Image credit: Getty Images
Wydad Casablanca, aggrieved, walked off the pitch. With members of his Executive Committee in tow, Ahmad spent 62 minutes trying to calm tempers. In the end, Wydad would not play. Esperance, leading 2-1 on aggregate, were given the trophy. But that’s not the end of the story, because Wydad have headed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, demanding a replay.
A week later, Ahmad – who is also a FIFA Vice President – was picked up for questioning in Paris by French anti-corruption police while attending the recent FIFA Congress. He was not charged, but FIFA have confirmed that investigations are in progress.
With days to the AFCON kick off, hundreds of journalists have not received tournament accreditation, which would enable them get a visa into Egypt. Despite all this, football, rather than politics, is expected to dominate headlines. “Everything is fine, there’ll be no problems,” Ahmad said on Wednesday.
An expanded tournament
The AFCON, a 16-team event from 1996, increases to 24 for the first time, meaning that almost half of CAF’s 54 members will be there. More games, means more viewers, and more interest, particularly in the nations of debutants and returnees. Mauritania, Madagascar and Burundi – for whom Stoke City’s Saido Berahino will be key – are all making a first appearance.
Tanzania was last at an AFCON 39 years ago. Kenya, their rivals and neighbours, haven’t been on this stage for 15 years. Somehow, the two Swahili-speaking sides find themselves in the same group. Tasty.
Guinea is not a favourite to win, but they are sweating on the fitness of Naby Keita, whose Champions League semi-final injury is not fully healed. Liverpool don’t want him to play, but Guinea can be ordinary without him, so play he will. Speaking of injuries, this tournament will be poorer due to the absence of some big names.
South Africa would prefer Itumeleng Khune, who was in goal for the 2010 World Cup and the subsequent two AFCONs in 2010 and 2013, as first choice, but a niggling shoulder problem means he was dropped.
Manchester United’s Eric Bailly (Cote d’Ivoire), Leicester’s Daniel Amartey and Crystal Palace’s Jeffrey Schlupp (Ghana), Kenyan defender Brian Mandela and Morocco duo of Real Madrid defender Achrif Hakimi (metatarsal) and prolific striker Abderrazak Hamdallah (back and hip) are all out.
Ah, Morocco. Being led by the hipsters’ favourite coach, Hervé Renard, is bound to make the Atlas Lions feel pressure. An AFCON winner twice this decade alone (with Zambia in 2012 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2015), ‘the Fox’ also has a solid squad.
Renard, who defeated the Ivorians in the 2012 final, then led the Elephants to win it in 2015, and will now face them on the second match day of Group D. They must be sick at the sight of him.
But Morocco won’t be the only side with strength in depth, for Senegal’s 23-man team look good. Problem is, their past three AFCON teams have been similarly loaded, and yet, their best showing was when El Hadj Diouf was still a Bolton player, in 2006.
Napoli’s highly-rated Kalidou Koulibaly leads a formidable defence, and Sadio Mane leads a star attack, but their only problem may be too much brawn in the middle. Cheikhou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye are good at what they do, but it is not picking a visionary pass.
Kalidou Koulibaly of Senegal looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Senegal and Colombia at Samara Arena on June 28, 2018 in Samara, Russia.
Image credit: Getty Images
Across the aisle, Nigeria may not look instantly like favourites, but a group having Madagascar, Guinea and Burundi should not be troubling. Gernot Rohr, when not scowling, likes to keep the Super Eagles compact, which could come in handy later in the tournament.
“This feels a lot like 2013,” ex-Everton and Nigeria defender Joseph Yobo told Eurosport in May. “Nobody gave us a chance, but we shocked them, and won. Our team just needs focus.”
A slice of luck
Ghana needs focus, too, but they’d settle for a bit of luck.
After their youth side won the U-20 World Cup in 2009, Ghana has built on that core to qualify for five straight AFCON semi-finals. Include 2008, and you’ve got six semis in a row. In a 16-team tournament, they should have bagged at least one title, by the law of averages. Yet, that drought has persisted since 1982.
Newcastle’s Christian Atsu reckons if they don’t win it now, “most of the players in the current squad will retire,” which gives an idea of the thinking in their camp. Now captained by Swansea’s André Ayew, Ghana will likely not have the familiar sight of ex-Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan among the starters. “I’ve played in every AFCON since 2008, and if I have to come off the bench in every game to help us win, so be it,” Gyan – scorer of 51 goals in 106 games – tells Eurosport.
Players to watch
Ajax attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech has delighted in pre-tournament friendlies for Morocco, while Huddersfield’s Steve Mounié bagged a hat-trick on Tuesday in Benin’s 3-1 win against Mauritania. Nicolas Pépé had 22 goals and 11 assists for Lille, and with a decent midfield for Ivory Coast, could have a breakout international tournament.
Ivory Coast's Serge Aurier (L) and Nicolas Pepe (R) celebrate a goal during the 2019 African Cup of Nations Group H qualification football match between Ivory Coast and Rwanda on March 23, 2019 at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium in Abidjan.
Image credit: Getty Images
Tanzania will hope simply to leave an impression, but Mbwana Samatta, fresh from raking in 32 goals from 54 matches in Belgium for Genk, can power them further. Regular AFCON watchers are used to Gyan and the older Ayew being Ghana’s poster boys, but the man likely to shine will be Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey.
Special mention to South Africa forward Percy Tau and Zimbabwe’s exciting – but prone to selfishness – Khama Billiat. Both players, for a long time chasing permanent European football, will see this tournament as a shop window.
It’s not all about scorers, because goalkeeper André Onana (Ajax) will show why his Champions League form was not a fluke, as Cameroon seek a title defence. Uganda’s best player, Dennis Onyango is also in goal.
VAR is here
On the subject of goalkeepers, they would hope to be bailed out by VAR decisions, as the controversial technology makes a tournament appearance from the quarterfinals.
Gary Al-Smith will be covering the Africa Cup of Nations for Eurosport. Get him on Twitter @garyalsmith