Egypt is going all-out to stage what it hopes will be the greatest Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the most prestigious sports event on the continent. The political leadership is all in, with the full backing of the government.
One reason for the government’s deep involvement in this particular event is that for the first time since its establishment in 2002, Egypt takes over the chair of the African Union, restoring its crucial role in the continent. Egypt was one of the founding countries of the Organisation of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor.
As such, the government found it the most opportune time to host the most popular sports event in the Dark Continent.
For Egypt, AFCON is not just football but a spectacular African festival that belongs to the continent. As the new chair of the African Union, Egypt is thus showing its generosity as it pays homage to this event and shares it with its fellow Africans.
It’s been 45 days since Egypt was named host of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Since then, the country has been enthusiastically gearing up for next summer’s spectacle.
The tournament, the organisers and the 24 participating teams have been the talk in Egypt, Africa and the rest of the world. And why not? AFCON is considered the third biggest football event in the world, after the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Cup.
This will be the fifth time Egypt hosts the Africa Cup of Nations, having staged it in 1957, 1974, 1986 and 2006.
It was generally accepted that the 2006 edition was AFCON’s most successful, technically and organisation wise, setting high spectator records and creating a legacy for Egyptian football.
Egypt also won the AFCON a record seven times, in the inaugural edition in 1957 and on home soil in 1959 as well as the 1986 edition, in Burkina Faso 1998, in 2006 at home, in Ghana in 2008 and in Angola 2010. Surprisingly, even though in one stretch it won three cups in a row, Egypt failed to make it to the final tournament the following three editions until it returned in 2017 when it reached the final before falling to Cameroon 2-1.
Egypt was not the original host; that honour had gone to Cameroon. But, on 30 November last year, the African Football Federation (CAF) stripped Cameroon of hosting the tournament after failing to meet the organisational requirements of the one-month event.
On 8 January this year, at a vote taken by the CAF’s Executive Committee in Dakar, Senegal, Egypt received 16 votes while South Africa, Egypt’s only contender for the bid, took only one vote. One member abstained.
The tournament, which runs from 21 June to 19 July, will be the first Africa Cup to be held in summer instead of winter, and more importantly, from the organisational standpoint, the first to be expanded from 16 to 24 teams, which could cause logistical nightmares.
The number of times Egypt has hosted the tournament, and won it, speaks volumes as to how successful the country has been in African football and this is what Egyptians are counting on.
But it should be noted that there is a 13-year gap between the last time Egypt hosted the tournament and today. Times have changed.
The country is not the same as before, neither politically, economically or socially. The world itself has changed. Social media, for example, did not exist in 2006.
Egyptians and others are anxious about the organisation of this most important sports event in the continent and are wondering whether Egypt can really meet the requirements in the four months left before the 32nd edition kicks off.
They are not questioning Egypt’s capability to host the biennial event because this is not the first time the host nation has staged AFCON, and it has produced superbly organised events in other sports.
But there are questions concerning how prepared Egypt is when such a tournament usually takes years to get ready for.
But Egypt is experienced in organising major international events, and has the calibers with the know-how to deliver an outstanding championship, even on short notice.
And additional help is on the way. This time, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) will not be the sole organiser but will be joined by local authorities and several ministries.
The government is passionate about the championship and promises to produce an unforgettable sports event.
Ministries of youth and sports, tourism, foreign affairs, information, telecommunications, transportation and interior are all set to contribute to the success of the tournament and to ensure that the participating teams, fans and media have nothing but praise for the organisation.
Governors of the cities where the matches will be played have also joined forces with the ministries and the organisers during the event. The whole nation is on standby.
With Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli currently leading the build-up and following up with the organisation, the whole nation is on call.
As head of the Supreme Organising Committee, Madbouli has been providing all the help necessary to knock down obstacles to prevent any delays.
EFA President Hani Abu Rida was named head of the Local Organising Committee (LOC). Abu Rida, also a FIFA Council member and CAF executive board member, has selected his LOC head, former Ahly international Mohamed Fadl.
Immediately after Egypt was selected host, Madbouli proved that the government was indeed fully involved in the organisation.
Joined by Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi, Madbouli started paying field visits to Cairo Stadium, dubbed ‘The Stadium of the Nation’ and which will host both the opening and closing matches.
The energetic Madbouli visited the stadium twice in 10 days, followed by a third visit two weeks later. Renovation had already begun in the stadium before Egypt entered the bid to host the tournament.
The famed stadium saw the Pharaohs win the AFCON trophy in 1986 and in the even more spectacular 2006 edition.
According to the EFA, the games will be played in six stadiums: Cairo Stadium, Al-Salam Stadium, Alexandria Stadium, Ismailia Stadium, Suez Stadium and Port Said Stadium in five cities: Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said and Suez.
All the stadiums are currently undergoing either construction work or renovations and are not hosting the ongoing national league matches.
The clubs have been cooperative and have agreed to move their home matches to other stadiums in order to give the space needed to get the venues ready for the upcoming tournament.
The EFA also announced that the draw for the 24 teams to decide which groups the countries will be placed in will be held on 12 April near the Sphinx and the Pyramids.
Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi had said fans and the participating teams need not worry about the preparations because everything will be ready ahead of time.
“Egypt was named as host of the AFCON in exceptionally surprising circumstances, which we all know. Building up for a big tournament such as the AFCON normally requires at least two years but we’ll do it in just three months. We already have an excellent and solid infrastructure which will make it easier for us to finish in such a short time. We just need to restore and update the stadium’s facilities such as lighting, the stands and media tribunes to meet the requirements,” Sobhi told reporters.
Sobhi also said match tickets will be available online and will go on sale right after the draw is held.
Egypt expects a huge surge of spectator and touristic turn-out for the most extravagant sports event in Africa and is already prepared to welcome them with open arms. In addition to the football programme, Egypt will be staging cultural, touristic and entertainment events to be held on the sidelines of the games for a cheerful vibe in the air of Egypt 2019.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: All hands on deck