Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Mohamed Salah set to thrive in the heat - 2019 Africa Cup of Nations talking points

Here are four points of discussion on the continental tournament, which kicks off when Egypt face Zimbabwe on Friday night

Bigger, Hotter, Better?

Twelve months after none of the five African teams at the World Cup made it through the group stage, the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations sets the continent a mighty challenge: To justify its expansion to a 24-country tournament, up from the 16-strong field that has been the format since 1996. Delusions of grandeur, or a recognition that standards have risen across Africa?

To look on the bright side, the skies should be … well, very bright indeed.

June and July in Egypt - to where the tournament was hurriedly relocated after designated host Cameroon fell behind on its deadlines - tends to be baking, and one concern is that players, some coming out of domestic seasons involving 50 or more fixtures, will wilt.

Another is that sapping conditions allied to a tournament structure that means four of the third-placed group finishers will squeak into the knockout phase may tempt coaches to aim not for wins but cagey draws, knowing that three points from three games might just be enough.

On the other hand, a cast list that includes Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, Senegal’s Sadio Mane - joint top scorers in the last Premier League - an Ivory Coast featuring Wilfried Zaha and in-form Lille striker Nicolas Pepe, plus the likes of Hatem Ziyech (Morocco), Riyad Mahrez (Algeria) and Moussa Marega (Mali) surely promises adventure.

That lot could conjure goals from inside an oven.

Africa 11, Rest of the World 13

The long, frustrating wait for a generation of talented African managers to establish themselves at the summit of the sport continues. On the starting grid this time, a Dutchman, a Belgian, a German, a Serb, a Briton, a Mexican and no fewer than seven French coaches. A minority of them, not for the first time, are from Africa.

Morocco's Herve Renard is one of several foreign managers in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Armando Babani / EPA
Morocco's Herve Renard is one of several foreign managers in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Armando Babani / EPA

Egypt-Zimbabwe, an old grudge revisited

On the face of it, the hosts have been dealt a comfortable opening fixture.

Their opponents, Zimbabwe, are ranked more than 50 places beneath them in the Fifa world rankings and have not won a game at a Nations Cup since 2006. But time was that these two countries were jousting as evenly-matched heavyweights, and Zimbabwe, amid great controversy, came out on top.

The year was 1993, and Egypt and Zimbabwe stood neck and neck for the right to go into the last stages of World Cup qualifying.

The so-called Warriors had beaten the Pharaohs 2-1 in Harare, and took an early lead in the return match in Cairo, during which, in the course of Egypt’s comeback to 2-1 ahead, missiles rained down from the grandstands, injuring among others, Zimbabwe’s eccentric, talismanic goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar.

The result was annulled, and, to the fury of the Egyptians, a replay ordered - to take place in neutral Lyon, in France. There, thanks in part to Grobbelaar’s spectacular keeping, a goalless draw gave Zimbabwe the point they needed to go through to the final round at Egypt’s expense.

It proved to be Zimbabwean football’s high point. The Warriors failed to reach the 1994 World Cup only because of a defeat to Cameroon in their last fixture of the qualifying marathon.

Bruce Grobbelaar, seen here in action for Liverpool, was among those injured during Zimbabwe's match against Egypt in 1993. Getty Images
Bruce Grobbelaar, seen here in action for Liverpool, was among those injured during Zimbabwe's match against Egypt in 1993. Getty Images

Underdogs, instructed to snarl

As Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania prepare for their first-ever matches at a Cup of Nations finals, they are advised to listen to the rallying cry issued by Ricardo Mannetti, Namibia manager, and a former player who was in the Namibian team that memorably came back from 3-0 down on their first-ever Nations Cup game, against Ivory Coast in 1998, to score three times before losing 4-3.

Ahead of Sunday’s confrontation with Morocco, Mannetti announced: “I would like to remind the big boys: Even small dogs have teeth.”

Updated: June 21, 2019 11:45 AM

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