The Under-23 African Cup of Nations starts tomorrow, Friday 8 November, on Egyptian soil with the national team hoping to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Japan.
The top three teams will represent Africa in Tokyo next summer. The two-week competition ends on Friday 22 November.
The young Egyptians also want to offset what the seniors did in their African cup, hosted by Egypt this past summer. Then, Egypt left the tournament in the round of 16, an embarrassing early exit.
But for the youth team as well, the initial signs are not very promising. Shawki Gharib’s team captained by in-form Ramadan Sobhi played two friendly games against South Africa to prepare for the competition but the performances raised doubts and produced questions more than answers.
The first game ended in a 1-1 draw with Ahmed Yasser Rayan scoring in the first half before the visitors equalised in the second. The issue wasn’t really the result as much as the performance. The youngsters looked vulnerable, disconnected and without a plan against a much organised South African side hoping to win the competition, according to their manager.
The game was oddly played in three halves, not two, as both managers agreed to do so to give all their players enough opportunity to showcase what they can do.
The second game between the two sides saw a slight improvement defensively for Gharib’s young stars but not much improvement up front. Sobhi won and converted the only goal of the game through a spot kick but once again there were very few positives apart from the clean sheet. Sobhi and Rayan will be the country’s biggest hopes, but they can’t do it all alone, so let’s hope Gharib finds the right formula for these young stars in tomorrow’s opening game against Mali and hopefully the fans will give the young Pharaohs the needed boost to perform.
A week before the start of the competition, the organising committee announced the prices of tickets for the tournament. For the opening game between Egypt and Mali, the VIP ticket will cost LE350 ($22), category 1 premium will cost LE200 ($13), category 1 will cost LE150 ($9.5), category 2 will cost LE30 ($2) and category 3 will cost LE20 ($1.5).
As for the remaining games for Egypt, the VIP ticket will cost LE250 ($16), category 1 premium will cost LE150 /$9.5, category 1 will cost LE100 ($6.5), category 2 will cost LE30 ($2) and category 3 will cost the same as the opening game.
As for the remaining games of the tournament, the VIP will cost LE200 ($13), category 1 will cost LE100 ($6.5), category 2 will cost LE30 ($2) and category 3 LE24 ($1.5).
This is the third edition of the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations with the first edition played in 2011 and won by Gabon and the second edition played in 2015 and won by Nigeria.
This year’s edition was initially scheduled to take place in Zambia but it withdrew from hosting in July 2017. The same year the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced that Egypt will host instead.
Egypt will certainly have to do it the hard way if it wants to be crowned champions given the names of the other seven nations taking part. Egypt’s group includes giant African names in the form of Mali, Cameroon and Ghana.
However, all three nations have yet to achieve anything spectacular in any U-23 tournament. Cameroon and Ghana take part in the competition for the first time while Mali made its only previous appearance in 2015 and bowed out in the group stage.
Egypt managed to take the bronze medal when it finished third in 2011 while it bowed out in the group stages in 2015. All four teams are strong so our national side will have to be at their very best to avoid leaving early.
The other group is even stronger as it includes the current champions Nigeria alongside Ivory Coast, South Africa and Zambia. South Africa finished third in 2015 while Zambia will be making its second appearance after bowing out in the group stages in 2015. Ivory Coast did not take part in 2015 and exited the group stage in 2011.
If we’re going to put the last two editions into consideration then Nigeria and South Africa have the upper hand. However, generally speaking, it’s very difficult to predict the four teams that will qualify for the semi-finals as the tournament is played once every four years, during which time many changes can take place regarding teams and players.
We can only hope that Egypt, powered by the support of the fans, will manage to win its first U-23 Africa Cup of Nations. Coach Gharib has picked a promising squad captained by Ahly’s mega star Sobhi. The country awaits the results.
Egypt’s full squad:
Goalkeepers: Omar Radwan (Gouna), Omar Salah (Smouha), Mohamed Sobhi (Zamalek), Mustafa Shobeir (Ahly).
Defenders: Osama Galal (ENPPI), Mahmoud Marei (Wadi Degla), Ahmed Ramadan (Wadi Degla), Mahmoud Al-Gazzar (Gouna), Mohamed Abdel-Salam (Zamalek), Mohamed Sadek (Ismaili), Ahmed Abul-Fetouh (Smouha), Karim Al-Eraki (Masri), Ahmed Ayman (Ismaili).
Midfielders: Akram Tawfik (Gouna), Ammar Hamdi (Ahly), Wagih Abdel-Hakim (Ismaili), Nasser Maher (Smouha), Ghanam Mohamed (Entag Al-Harbi), Fawzi Al-Hennawi (Smouha), Taher Mohamed Taher (Arab Contractors).
Forwards: Ramadan Sobhi (Ahly), Emam Ashour (Zamalek), Abdel-Rahman Magdi (Ismaili), Mustafa Mohamed (Zamalek), Salah Mohsen (Ahly), Ahmed Yasser Rayan (Gouna), Nasser Mansi (Gaish).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.