THE Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is set to kick off in Egypt today against a backdrop of terror attacks and only days after the death of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
With opening and closing games held at Cairo Stadium, it will be the fifth time that Egypt has hosted the regional tournament, which has expanded this year to include 24 teams.
Cairo last welcomed African teams in 2006, before the country’s political landscape was rocked by the Arab Spring of 2011.
This time, Egypt plays host after Morsi, its first democratically elected president, was buried on Tuesday following the ousted and jailed leader’s collapse in court and death the previous day.
Authorities are confident the infrastructure is in place to host the continent’s largest football contest, but they are on high alert after attacks on tourists near the pyramids and an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Organisers have also reduced ticket prices for the Africa Cup of Nations after a backlash from Egyptian football fans in April.
Tickets to matches featuring Egypt, set to be led by star forward Mohamed Salah, were initially priced at 200 pounds (about $12, 10 euros) for the cheapest admission and graduated up to 600 pounds for premium seats.
Meanwhile, Egypt are confident of defeating Zimbabwe today in the opening match of a tournament expanded to 24 teams and staged in mid-year for the first time.
Ghana’s Black Stars will, however, take their turn on Tuesday, June 25, when they open their Group F account with a dodgy game against Benin.
Egypt lie 51 places higher on the world rankings ahead of the Group A clash with Zimbabwe and have won three of the four previous Cup of Nations they hosted.
“We are the favourites to win the 2019 Africa Cup,” said 60-year-old coach Javier Aguirre, the first Mexican to guide a nation that has won the competition a record seven times.
“Egypt are playing at home, can count on passionate support and have Mohamed Salah, the best footballer in Africa.”
The Pharaohs beat fellow qualifiers Tanzania and Guinea and what pleased Aguirre most was not the results, but the large number of scoring chances the Pharaohs created.
“We had about 20 chances to score against the Tanzanians and almost as many against the Guineans. That is very encouraging.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda are the other teams in Group A and they meet tomorrow at the same venue as the opening match.
Group winners and runners-up qualify for the knockout second round along with the best four of the six third-place finishers. – AFP