Football-mad fans and the presence of Mohamed Salah can revive flagging tournament but for the fourth time in a row the original hosts – this time Cameroon – have had to be replaced.
Six weeks ago the notion that Egypt might host this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations had barely passed anyone’s lips. Yet Tuesday’s overwhelming decision by the Confederation of African Football’s executive committee has conferred on them that responsibility and it marks the end of a chaotic process that, quite aside from the logistical blundering that has brought about this situation, leaves the continent once again asking itself broader questions.
Egypt’s candidacy was approved by a vote of 16 to one, with one abstention, a rival South African bid having failed to get off the ground because of inadequate financial commitments. The process was hurried through after Cameroon were stripped of hosting rights on 30 November; an initial reaction is that Caf has stumbled upon the best possible sticking plaster for a bad job but there is little merit in its flair for sailing close to the wind.
Cameroon was already lagging behind in its preparations when, in July 2017, Caf announced the tournament would be enlarged to 24 teams from its standard 16. At that point the alarm bells should have rung loudly but instead a pretence, regularly undermined by those close to the organising committee and by the delegations that returned from half-constructed venues, was maintained that the west African country could see it through. In September it was granted a last chance to put things right but, with two of the host cities located close to its violence-stricken anglophone regions, the reasons to pull the plug had stacked up insurmountably.
As recently as October, the Caf president, Ahmad Ahmad, said his organisation had “never thought about withdrawing the Cup of Nations from Cameroon”. Ahmad, who made little secret of his wish for a country of such vibrant football heritage to hold the tournament after three of the previous four had been staged in the petrostates of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, was desperate for it to work. He succeeded Issa Hayatou in March 2017, coming through on an appealing ticket of modernisation and transparency, but opted too soon for an expansionist European-style template and was left scrambling, just as his predecessor was in finding replacement hosts for the 2013, 2015 and 2017 iterations.
The reasons for those switches differed and it is not the fault of anybody at Caf that political instability and – in the case of Morocco’s last-minute withdrawal from hosting in 2015 – disease have forced them to think on their feet on previous occasions. But it makes Ahmad’s insistence on imitating the European Championship’s new format seem reckless when so much of the continent lacks the resources or need for a jamboree of this size. The Chinese-built stadium used in Oyem, in northern Gabon, two years ago already risks being reclaimed by the jungle; it is not a huge stretch, either, to imagine similar problems occurring after Cameroon (who will now host in 2021), Ivory Coast and Guinea have hosted the next three editions.
Yet passing judgment from this distance on questions of progress, and what that ought to entail, is inherently problematic. One certainty is that Caf needs to revive this event’s flagging global profile and Egypt is capable of hosting a full-fat, authentic-looking tournament for the first time since Ghana in 2008. The rise of Mohamed Salah has already piqued interest in a country whose love of international football is visceral. The crowds should be large and boisterous, just as they were when Egypt last hosted, 13 years ago; the infrastructure will pose few problems; and fans from Africa and beyond will have to face none of the visa-related brick walls – or unfriendly flight times – that made Gabon and Equatorial Guinea almost inaccessible.
Ahmad’s decision to hold the tournament in the summer should maximise its appeal, too. Yet Egypt’s searing heat – temperatures could reach up to 40C (104F) – will spook the medics and may well have a knock-on effect on the football, which reached an agreeably high tempo in 2017 but will find that difficult to match on a baking afternoon in Cairo.
The terrorist attack that killed three tourists and their guide in Giza, just outside the capital, last month is another reminder that this tournament will not take place without significant risk; the stadiums themselves will be under scrutiny too given the ban on spectators at domestic games that ran for six years after the Port Said riot in 2012, although the Egyptian FA has pointed out that continental and international fixtures have been hosted to full attendances.
How Egypt reacts will be noteworthy given the turbulence the sport has been caught up in during this decade. Its bid was fully backed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country’s president, and his government. For Sisi, a Cup of Nations presents an opportunity to show Egypt is open for business and to use football, a tempestuous site for political contestation during and after the revolution, for narrower ends at a time when the regime is regularly condemned for brutality and authoritarianism.
It all goes to emphasise that Caf will once again be muddling through while concerns about African football’s wider development, particularly in the light of such a poor World Cup performance from its representatives, hang in the air. On the pitch, perhaps stories such as the qualification of Mauritania – a shining, and rare, example of how to sensibly invest Fifa funds – will justify the expansion, while another feelgood story would be written if Saido Berahino and Burundi can book their place in March. But it is Egypt and, perhaps, the totemic figure of Salah who offer the real rescue act in a situation that should never have come to this.
Published by ” The Guardian”