Egypt abuzz with African Cup of Nations fever as tournament begins in style

Fans and state media laud competition’s opening ceremony, Cairo’s showcase to a global audience

Soccer Football - Africa Cup of Nations 2019 - Group A - Egypt v Zimbabwe - Cairo, Egypt - June 21, 2019  Egypt fans watch the match in a cafe  REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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For an Egypt aspiring to lead Africa, it was an opportunity too good to pass when Cameroon was stripped late last year of its right to host the African Cup of Nations.

By replacing the West African nation, Egypt could showcase its stadiums before a global television audience, show off its organisation, bolster its slowly recovering tourism industry and give the football-mad nation a shot at winning a record-extending eighth African title.

All of this while its president, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, is the rotating chairman of the African Union, the continent's primary grouping.

With that in mind, Egypt lobbied hard, both publicly and behind the scenes, and was eventually selected to replace Cameroon. But with that came a challenge: could Egypt be ready in five months to host 24 teams, not the historical 16 that was the case for decades?

Well, with a president who has consistently shown a resilient hands-on approach to nearly every issue and with the army routinely called upon to ensure timely results, Egypt's readiness for the 32nd edition of the continent's primary tournament was never really in any doubt.

Friday night's opening ceremony at the Egyptian capital's Cairo International Stadium, before the Pharaohs defeated Zimbabwe by one goal to nil, provided the evidence.

"The Egyptians amaze the world with the opening of the African tournament," read the red banner headline of the state's flagship newspaper Al Ahram on Saturday.

If you believe that Al Ahram might be showing pro-government bias – as one would expect it to – then perhaps read what social media users normally critical of the government had to say about the event on Facebook and Twitter. "Makes me proud to be Egyptian" was the sentiment many of them expressed about the ceremony, a song-and-dance show in Arabic, French and English accompanied by a dazzling fireworks display.

The run-up to the show was an elaborate security plan carried out by thousands of police and an army of volunteers at hand to help the 70,000 fans who filled the facility and the estimated 2,000 journalists who descended on the venue.

Drones were intermittently used to film the fans in their seats, a tactic designed to identify culprits more easily in the case of violence or unruly behavior. Fans who bought tickets for any of the tournament's matches had to apply for a fan ID, without which no tickets could be sold.

Both had to be shown at the gates, which closed at 6pm on Friday, two hours before the ceremony began and four hours before kickoff. Not taking chances, many fans were at the stadium from as early as 1 pm. Fans underwent five ID checks and searches before they made it to their seats, but many commended the security men for their civility.

The stadium, like other venues in three cities beside Cairo, was given a facelift, complete with a fully equipped press centre, VIP boxes for fans with deep pockets and brand new changing rooms for teams and match officials. Toilets, a chronic problem at Egyptian sports facilities, were both clean and functioning properly. Signs were painted on nearby streets to direct fans to their designated gates and reinforcements of traffic police were deployed to prevent congestion around the stadium.

No figure was publicised for how much it is costing Egypt to host the African Cup of Nations, although a reasonable guess would place that in the low hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, hosting the tournament, regardless of the cost and provided that no major incident takes place between now and July 19, should be giving Egypt such good and positive publicity at a time when the country's vital tourism industry is showing signs of recovery after years of slumping following a 2011 popular uprising.

President El Sisi says it is of paramount importance that the tournament is perceived as both successful and well organised. But a win will also go a long way to give the country's 100 million people something to celebrate when most of them are struggling to make ends meet in the face of steep price rises that came with an ambitious economic reform plan agreed with the International Monetary Fund in 2016.

Egyptians are also grappling with a years-long insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula by radical Islamist militants who have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen over the past decade but have been unable to control any sizeable territory.

Cairo, for example, was basked in a festive mood on Friday night before Egypt even kicked a ball. Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, filled teahouses across the city of some 20 million people to watch. Sports clubs erected giant screens for their members to watch the game. At every street corner, someone was selling Egypt's red, white and black flags.

Remarkably, it has been rare to hear someone complaining that the millions spent on hosting the tournament should have been spent on health care, education or housing.

"People's deep fondness of the game took care of that," football analyst Sabry Sirag said.

"In some cases, it may be beneficial for economically troubled countries to host big sports tournaments to inject life into the economy or to attract tourists."

Adding to the upbeat mood in Egypt is the fact that Liverpool's Mohamed Salah – Egypt's most loved athlete who has inspired millions of children and youths – was potentially staying in his native Egypt for an entire month, something that seems to have warmed many hearts.

Like the flags sold on the streets, Salah's image seems to be everywhere in Egypt these days. He appears on posters, banners, giant advertising boards, various TV commercials as well as murals.

"Salah represents a dream for most Egyptians, not just a footballer," said Mr Sirag, the football critic who attended Friday night's game. "He is like a folkloric hero."