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Africa Cup of Nations: A troubled build-up

Paris (AFP) – The draw for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations takes place in Cairo on Friday in a country that was only handed the task of organising the tournament in January.

Egypt faces a race against time to be ready for the June 21 kick-off.

Supposed to be in Cameroon…

Egypt, seven-time winners of this competition, stood in for Cameroon after the central African country was deemed by African football’s governing body, CAF, to have fallen too far behind in its preparations.

Not surprisingly, Egypt faces an uphill battle to be ready in time, especially as the format has been expanded from 16 teams to 24.

The locations of the teams’ training camps, as well as the issue of visas for both the delegations and supporters from across the continent, will only be clarified “after the draw”, says Nathalie Rabe, head of communications for CAF.

Signs of discord in Egypt

One expert with knowledge of the organising process told AFP that CAF recently “reprimanded” the Egyptian organising committee, accusing it of failing to coordinate its efforts and of making vague statements to the media.

Rabe declined to discuss the reports of rows between CAF and the local organisers and insisted that preparations “are going well”.

Egypt put forward a provisional list of 10 stadiums, of which six have been chosen to host games. Three are in Cairo, and stadiums in Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia round out the list.

“The biggest worry now is the quality of the stadiums and the pitches… but they should be ready for the tournament,” Hatem Maher, a sports journalist for Ahram Online, told AFP.

Boon for tourism?

It was widely assumed that Egypt’s decision to host the tournament at such short notice was motivated by a desire to attract tourists back to the country.

Visitor numbers to Egypt have dropped since the Arab Spring revolution of 2011 which led to the resignation from the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. There was also the 2015 bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai with the loss of 224 lives, and the country is mired in an economic crisis.

Egypt’s tourism ministry, however, denies that a special plan to attract tourists has been put into place for the tournament.

“Egypt’s decision to organise the competition was only aimed at showing the world that the country was capable of doing so,” Maher said.

Another Egyptian journalist, Mahmoud Diaa, from website Goal, said the tournament was a great opportunity for the country to improve the image of his country.

“Unfortunately so far we haven’t seen any indication of this happening, except for the fact that the stadiums are being renovated,” he said.

Salah, Mane, Mahrez – stars on show

When the action does begin, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and his Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane, who lines up for Senegal, are expected to lead the cast of Europe-based stars on show.

African Player of the Year Salah and the host nation will be seeking to bounce back from their disastrous 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Pharaohs’ choice of a team base in Chechnya was disputed from the start and they failed to win a single point as Salah struggled, clearly still labouring with a shoulder injury he sustained in the Champions League final against Real Madrid.

Mane, 27, has had a barnstorming season for Liverpool, driving the club to the top of the Premier League and scoring crucial goals in their charge to the Champions League quarter-finals.

Senegal have a rugged side, also featuring Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, that narrowly failed to reach the World Cup knockout stage last year. 

Herve Renard’s Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria and holders Cameroon are also among the top seeds for the draw. However, there are dangerous sides below them, such as Algeria, who can call on Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez and a host of other European-based players.

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