Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Egypt fans will be grateful 2019 Africa Cup of Nations opener passed without incident

Authorities ensured there was no repeat of football tragedies in 2012 and 2015 that claimed lives of nearly 100 fans

There was a colourful dance and song show in Arabic, French and English, and a breath-taking fireworks display. But the 20-minute dazzle that glued millions of people to their television sets in Egypt and across Africa did not carry over when the Pharaohs took on outsiders Zimbabwe in what they hope to be a record-extending eighth win of the Africa Cup of Nations title.

Sure, they bagged the three points, thanks to a curling shot by Turkey-based midfielder Mahmoud Hassan - he is better known by his nickname Trezeguet - that went into the right corner of the net just before half time. But their late Saturday performance before a capacity crowd of 70,000 led by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi at the Cairo International Stadium was far from reassuring.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah celebrates after their opening win against Zimbabwe at Cairo International Stadium late on Friday. Gavin Barker / EPA
Egypt's Mohamed Salah celebrates after their opening win against Zimbabwe at Cairo International Stadium late on Friday. Gavin Barker / EPA

The Egyptians had a series of scoring chances early in the game, but they could not find the net as the Zimbabweans showed they were not easy prey as time went by. Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, fresh from winning the Uefa Champions League this month and maybe a touch fatigued, set up a pair of opportunities in those early minutes and had another two of his own in the second half, with goalkeeper Edmore Sibanda and his substitute Elvis Chipezeze denying the 27-year-old striker.

Egypt will next play the DR Congo on Wednesday and take on Uganda next week in its final Group A match. The Pharaohs are expected to qualify to the last 16 of the 32-nation, month-long tournament.

But they also are likely to run into much stronger competition at the later stages with heavyweights like Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal and Nigeria seemingly good enough to stake a claim to the 32nd edition of the continent's flagship competition.

"They did not play so well," said Ahmed Bastawy, a 55-year-old fan and father of three from Cairo. "If they don't improve, they will be out in the quarter-finals.

"But the Egyptians always have modest starts at African tournaments and then steadily improve. Let us wait and see if this happens this time round."

The tournament, which boasts 24 teams for the first time, marks the first time that Egypt organises a major sporting event since a popular uprising in 2011 roiled the country in political instability and violence for years, battering the economy and the vital tourism industry.

With the last of their seven African titles won 2010, the Pharaohs are hoping that playing before their home fans will give them an edge over other contenders.

In the tournament's last edition in 2017, Egypt reached the final but were defeated by Cameroon.

A general view of performers during the opening ceremony to kick off the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Khaled Elfiqi / EPA
A general view of performers during the opening ceremony to kick off the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

For now, however, the Egyptians must be grateful that the tournament's opener passed without incident, a significant feat in a country where a pair of football tragedies claimed the lives of nearly a 100 fans in 2012 and 2015, prompting authorities to effectively ban fans from attending top-tier league matches as well as cup fixtures.

Allowing 70,000 at a stadium a short drive away from central Cairo was possible because security forces launched a major security operation around the venue that included exhaustive searches of fans, banning a host of items from the venue and using drones to identify troublemakers should the need arises.

Thousands of policemen, some armed, were deployed on Saturday at and outside the Cairo stadium to ensure safety for fans and officials. Helicopters hovered above. Gates were closed at least four hours before the opening ceremony got underway at around 8pm (10pm UAE). Kick off was at 10pm.

El Sisi himself expressed his satisfaction over the security measures in place for the tournament, suggesting that the system adopted by the tournament organisers was likely to be replicated by authorities when top-tier league and cup matches resume after July 19 to ensure violence-free matches.

"It has been a good start for us," the general-turned-president said after Saturday night's match.

Updated: June 23, 2019 03:47 PM

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