BY DAVID ONJILI
The 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicked off in Egypt on 21st June. 24 teams are battling it out to be crowned as the continent’s champions in the biennial soccer event. Four Egyptian cities, Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia play host to the games and also showcase the country’s rich culture. Cameroon arrived as the defending champions and Kenya’s Harambee Stars makes a return to continental football after a fifteen-year absence, no mean feat.
Star players to watch out for.
The chants… “Mo Salah, Mo Salah” do not just reverberate in Liverpool, England where he plays his club football; Mohamed Salah is an iconic figure that will lead his nation, Egypt at the showpiece. He joins a long list of star-studded African teams who ply their trade in major European capitals representing top clubs and who are on national duty.
There is Kenya’s Victor Wanyama Sadio Mane of Senegal, Riyadh Mahrez of Algeria, John Obi Mikel of Nigeria, Tanzania’s Mbwana Samatta, Uganda’s Emmanuel Okwi
The beauty of football is majorly with the fans, they color the stadiums with their huge attendances and cheer on players during the games. From children to the elderly, soccer attracts fans indiscriminately. Yet, one telling feature of the AFCON 2019 finals is the near empty stadiums that several of the so far played games have been played in. For instance, Tanzania versus Senegal game was played in a virtually empty stadium. This could be attributed in part to lack of proper knowledge on the part of fans on the requirements for attending a game. Apart from purchasing a Matchday ticket, no fan is allowed to attend any game without a fan identification. This is applied online and many fans that traveled to Egypt having not applied for it faced some inconvenience.
Luckily for Harambe Stars, the Nairobi County Governor and betting firm, Sportpesa through the Kenya Football Fans Association and other stakeholders were able to transport hundreds of fans to cheer the boys.
By the time of going to press, several first round games had already been played. With four East African nations, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya participating in the showpiece, it is a moment to savor for the region.
Uganda’s 2-0 victory over Democratic Republic of Congo was the pick of the pack. They did not just win the game convincingly, they out played and outclassed their opponents in every department. The victory courtesy of goals by Patrick Kaddu and Emmanuel Okwi was no fluke and in fact would have been larger were they more clinical in front of goal.
Burundi fell to a solitary goal from Odion Ighalo as Nigeria secured a victory. Senegal, who are the highest ranked team by FIFA on the continent kicked off their campaign with a convincing two goal victory over Tanzania. Morocco had to wait for a last minute own goal to secure a hard fought one goal victory over stubborn Namibia. Unconvincingly to some observers, Egypt had on the opening day kicked off the tournament with a 1-0 victory over Zimbabwe.
While Egypt as hosts remain favorites on paper, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Algeria are the bookmakers’ favorites for the title. With seven AFCON titles, Egypt remains the most decorated nation on the continent by titles followed by Cameroon with four. There is also the aspect of the host nation always winning the tournament. More than 11 times, the hosts have won the tournament and the pressure will be on Egypt to replicate this.
Another interesting development that fans have observed in the tournament is the water breaks. Due to the extremely warm temperatures, teams are allowed water breaks in the 30th and 75th minutes to help them cool off. The average temperatures in June/July in Egypt is expected to be around 35 degrees celicius. There is also the introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) from the quarterfinals stages that will be used to aid match officials in making better decisions.
For the next one month, soccer lovers will be treated to amazing football, unearthing of talent and the crowning of a champion. The question is who will it be?