It’s David vs Goliath affair as Egypt play Zimbabwe
After months of anticipation and preparation, the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicks off in Cairo this evening with 24 teams vying for the coveted trophy and a cash prize of $4.5million.
Over the next four weeks, the Egyptian cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Suez will play host to 552 players trying to outshine one another at the 32nd AFCON, which kicks off this evening at the 75,000-seater Cairo International Stadium with a potential David v Goliath affair as the host team play Zimbabwe in the opening match (kick-off is at 8pm Ghana time).
Despite being awarded the tourney at short notice in January when the Confederation of African Football (CAF) stripped Cameroun of the hosting rights, local organisers in Egypt have worked around the clock to ensure a good tournament.
Ghana’s Black Stars, drawn in Group F alongside defending champions Cameroun, Benin and Guinea-Bissau, will kick off their campaign against their West African rivals, the Squirrels of Benin on Tuesday.
After the official opening ceremony, the Pharaohs of Egypt, the tournament’s most successful side, will be chasing their eighth AFCON title when they host the Brave Warriors who are participating in their fourth tournament and are yet to qualify out of the group stage.
It is also the first time the southern African side have qualified for successive AFCON tournaments since their debut two participations in the competition when they qualified in 2004 and 2006.
Egypt, led by African football and Liverpool posterboy, Mohamed Salah, are among the pre-tournament favourites and are expected to make a winning start to the competition before a capacity home crowd.
It has been almost a decade since the Pharaohs won their seventh continental title after beating Ghana 1-0 in the 2010 AFCON final in Angola, but there is a lot of hope that Salah could provide the team with inspiration to go past Zimbabwe and their Group A rivals and all the wat to win the trophy just as they did when Egypt last hosted the tournament in 2006.
Salah is not only the most recognizable face in the current Egypt squad, but he is also Africa’s best player at the moment.
With 39 goals in 62 appearances, the striker is already the third highest goalscorer in Egypt’s history and will be looking to slide into second this tournament, as he is only three goals off.
Keen to deliver and claim his place among Africa’s great, Salah understands the weight of expectation but insists this tournament will be getting his team to deliver instead of chasing individual honours.
“I understand the weight of expectation from both the nation and the continent.
But it won’t be all about me, but the team first.
I’m ready to play any role that will enable my team to get the desired results,” said the 25-year-old striker who helped Liverpool win the UEFA Champions League last month.
Zimbabwe have not been at many AFCON wars as Egypt.
This tournament will be their fourth appearance, and they have never been past the group stage.
In 2017, they were in Gabon, but could not progress to the knockout stage and would fancy their chances this time.
Tino Kadewere, who plays for French side, Le Havre, and his teammates admit the opening match with Egypt is a David versus Goliath affair even though he is confident they would get a good result.
The squad looks much different from the one that exited in the group stage two years ago with just a point after a tough draw that placed them alongside Senegal, Tunisia and Algeria in Gabon.
They built on that disappointing early exit to qualify again finishing the qualifying campaign as Group G winners with 11 points against the likes of DR Congo, Liberia and Congo.
"It's an honour to be going to the AFCON. It means even a greater achievement by playing against the host nation in the first game, playing against the best African player, and probably one of the best in the world also.
"Against Egypt, it will be a herculean task, but we are ready to challenge and fight for a win," Kadewere admitted in an interview with AFP.