AFCON2019 IS FINALLY HERE, AFRICA’S SOCCER FESTIVAL SET TO REVEAL THE CONTINENT’S BEAUTIFUL GAME AND CULTURE TO THE WORLD.
The 32nd edition of the Total African Cup of Nations competition kicked off in Egypt June 21 with 24 teams. Ahead of the tournament, the Confederation of African Football, CAF initiated several changes and alterations signalling that this year’s Africa Cup of Nations has several surprises in store for us. Because of the competition’s expansion from 16 to 24 teams, more countries than usual were given the chance to qualify for the very first time – and three did exactly that. Madagascar, Mauritania and Burundi will all compete in their first ever AFCON this year, which will surely result in some emotional scenes in Egypt.
Six of the nation’s taking part this year are outside of the top 100 in FIFA’s world rankings, so for some just reaching the finals is quite an achievement. The tournament’s preparations rarely witnesses mountainous problems despite a crowded field of competitions from teams that come out to fight for the coveted title. The difficulties began with proposed host Cameroon. Despite being pencilled as host nation for five years, the home of the “Indomitable Lions” was not able to sufficiently convince CAF that they were prepared.
CAF ultimately stripped Cameroon of the hosting rights citing both delays and the ongoing conflict with the country’s Anglophone community. And then when everything seemed to be all over, CAF President Ahmad Ahmad gets picked up by police at his Paris hotel and taken for questioning by corruption investigators. As if to pour hot water in CAF’s many gaping wounds, this directly followed a two-day meeting of a special commission that was supposed to reach a decision on the scandalous CAF Champions League final between Esperance of Tunisia and Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca. A very important element of the tournament is the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology which CAF announced June 20 that it will start using it from the quarter final stage.
CAF President Ahmad Ahmad has made it clear that there is no rush to use the technology in all the games. Perhaps to the delight of European club managers, it’s the first Africa Cup of Nations to take place in the summer. But temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius will pose serious challenges to competing teams, and their worries will not end there.
Therefore, matches will feature three-minute breaks in each half due to extreme heat. Coolers with crushed ice and drinks, as well as cold, wet towels will be provided for the players and officials. So, for many pundits and fans, the principal magic spell of the Africa Cup of Nations is its double-dyed unpredictability. Two years ago, Cameroon went into the competition with one of its weakest-looking squads in living memory and came out of it as champions.
This year, three other countries are being treated as the heavy hitters: Egypt, Senegal and Morocco, and already the most successful country in the competition’s history, The Pharaohs wouldn’t object to an eighth crown. There are other countries that will be hoping to upset 2019’s big three. Title holders Cameroon can never be discounted. Nigeria and Ghana could also play a defining role, even though they are currently not exactly stable.
Some football experts also afford Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo outside chances of glory. In fact, the surprises will become clear when the action starts. All involved are ready for the games to begin, if not for the best reasons, but ultimately hoping the action will finally sweep the scandals to the background and allow African football to show off one of the things it has to offer: a wealth of top-quality talent.
BY BENJAMIN WILLIE GRAHAM, SPORTS JOURNALIST AND AFCON COMMENTATOR.