An AFCON worth remembering

AFCON 2019 had its highs and lows

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Sunday 21 Jul 2019,
photos: Mohamed Mustafa
photos: Mohamed Mustafa

There is still a final to be played but a review of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt is in order. Here are some of the best — and the worst — from the championship that was.


HOST EGYPT: There were only six months left when Egypt won the right to host this year’s AFCON. The task was given to Egypt on such short notice after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) deemed Cameroon not ready to host. A new vote was taken in January this year with Egypt amassing more votes than rival bidder South Africa.

In record time Egypt readied six stadiums in four cities and, by the time Africa’s greatest show had begun, had in place accommodation, online ticketing, communications and transportation. It was a job very well done and needs to be accorded the acclaim it deserves.  

LOCAL COACHES: It is a refreshing sight to see that the two finalists have homegrown coaches: Algeria’s Djamel Belmadi and Senegal’s Aliou Cisse. It might not be a coincidence, either. Local coaches seem to empathise with their players more, can better understand where they’re coming from. While foreigners might be needed for countries that do not have a long history in football, there is no good reason why federations with a history need to go for the foreign look, except for the fact that outsiders might not be intimidated by a hostile press, aggressive Facebook posts and antagonistic tweets because they don’t speak the language.

Egypt’s last two coaches, Hector Cuper of Argentina and Mexican Javier Aguirre, respectively gave us zero points in last year’s World Cup and a 16th round knockout in this year’s AFCON. Compare that mess with Egypt’s own Hassan Shehata who presented Egypt with three consecutive AFCON titles, a continental record. For the record, Aguirre’s contract when he signed for Egypt in August last year was LE100 million for four years, for him and his assistants, making him reportedly the most expensive AFCON coach. With that kind of money, Egypt should have had the best football team not just in Africa but on the six other continents.

REFEREES: While there are no statistics on how good a referee is because so much of his work is subjective, this was a great tournament for African referees. They were, in the main, spot-on. There was an exception or two, like a penalty for handball that Ethiopian referee Bamlak Tessema Weyesa should have awarded Tunisia in the dying minutes of extra time against Senegal in the semi-final that would have tied the game. But in general, the refs made few questionable calls or at least did not make decisions that affected the final score lines. They went about their business without the advantage of VAR until it made its appearance in the quarter-finals. They were confident and had the respect of the players. We didn’t see the usual sight of players swarming around a referee if they didn’t like a decision. This probably has something to do with the general politeness of African players but this aggressive-free atmosphere was also due to good decisions. The players accepted yellow cards and the few red cards that came out with minimal debate. Referee assistants were good, too, very accurate in calling offsides.

The performance of the referees put paid to the long-standing complaint by Egyptian powerhouse clubs Ahly and Zamalek that African referees are biased against them. What we saw in the AFCON were fair and honest adjudicators of the game.

LIGHTWEIGHTS: Not one ever won an AFCON. Madagascar was making its first appearance in the tournament. Despite their meagre football history, Madagascar, Mali, Guinea, Benin and Uganda all reached the round of 16, Madagascar even topping its group which included Nigeria. Either they were surprise packages or we weren’t paying attention. Not too long ago, these countries couldn’t hold a candle to the established order of Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and the like. But these one-time minnows have a come a long way since. Perhaps Egyptians didn’t notice the improvements after Egypt failed to reach three successive AFCONs starting from 2012. By the time Egypt returned in 2017, these countries had started playing more than decent football and doing so without big stars. Their secret: they follow to a T the instructions of their coaches, mostly European. The game plan is basically to go down the field in set formations of four or five players. They move in box-shaped form. When they’re doing it right, it’s a very disciplined and orderly way of playing. The set-up is almost air tight. It’s hard to take the ball from them. The biggest problem is that the players don’t have enough imagination or creativity to do things out of the box. So when the formation breaks down, as it often will, they are at a loss because they have no Plan B. The other problem is goal scoring. They transition well from defence to midfield to the offense. But once they get within shooting range, they have no eye for goal. They will win their fair share of matches; Benin took out Morocco in the round of 16 while Madagascar made it to the quarter-finals. They can advance in various tournaments, but it’s not the sort of style that can win championships, at least not yet.

ALGERIA: Who would have thought Egyptians would one day be rooting for Algeria? After Egypt was knocked out of round 16, suddenly Egyptian fans started cheering for Algeria, as well as Tunisia. Egyptians will tell you that this switch of allegiance was for the purpose of Arab unity. But Egypt’s footballing relations with its North African neighbours, especially Algeria, have been fraught with tension-filled games, none more so than when Algeria beat Egypt in neutral territory, Sudan, to leapfrog to the 2010 World Cup. When it ended, that game descended into Algerian hoodlums chasing Egyptians down the streets of Omdurman. With that kind of bad blood, it was more than surprising that Egyptians suddenly became big fans of Algeria. Besides the sudden discovery of brotherly Arab relations, it appeared that Egyptians started backing Algeria and Tunisia just to stick it to the Egyptian team after its humbling ouster from round 16 of the AFCON.


HOST EGYPT: The record seven-time winner of this tournament was bundled out of its own competition in the round of 16. It was a humiliating experience for the country which, based on its record and the fact that it was the host, had believed it could go all the way. The fallout of this stunning failure was the firing of the coach, the resignation of the football association and the lambasting of the players but that did little to console the millions of outraged Egyptians who basically got a raw deal.

HEAVYWEIGHTS: The three most successful teams in Africa Cup of Nations history – Egypt, Cameroon and Ghana – all left the tournament in the round of 16. Between them, they have 16 AFCON titles. For good measure, DR Congo with two crowns and Morocco with one, also could not break the same barrier.

The reasons for the decline vary but more than focusing on the explanations, give credit where it’s due.  The teams that beat these goliaths should be applauded. Cameroon and Ghana were taken out by giants just as big, Nigeria and Tunisia. Rookies Madagascar gave DR Congo a lesson it won’t soon forget. And nothing should be taken away from South Africa which shocked Egypt with a mix of sustained upfront pressure and a killer goal with five minutes left.

AMR WARDA, EFA: It was bad enough that the Egyptian team had a predator in its midst, a player who was caught sending unwanted lewd messages online to more than one woman. What made the Amr Warda affair blow up into scandalous proportions was the way in which the Egyptian Football Association handled it, first booting him out of the team, then reinstating him 48 hours later, reportedly at the behest of some of his teammates, including star Mohamed Salah and the team’s captain.

SUMMER SCHEDULE: The AFCON switch in seasons from winter to summer helped European clubs who balked at having to give up their prized African players in January and February when European leagues are in full swing. But the oppressive heat of June and July was tough on the teams who in some cases had 4:30pm starts when it was sizzling. The fans, too, melted under a blazing sun after being forced to arrive in stadiums several hours before game time, especially Cairo Stadium, when Egypt was playing to a full house.

24 TEAMS: The increase from 16 teams to 24 could go either way. The increase allowed anybody who is anybody in Africa to qualify. That meant a dilution of the tournament. Four countries finished with no points in the group stage, for instance. At the same time, however, it ensured that just about all the good teams in Africa were present in Egypt 2019. The attendance record of past AFCONs is usually not so perfect.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An AFCON worth remembering


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