x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Pharaohs deserve a global stage

The 2010 African Cup of Nations ought to carry a disclaimer. "Any resemblance between the Angola tournament and the World Cup in June is entirely coincidental," it would read.

The 2010 African Cup of Nations ought to carry a disclaimer. "Any resemblance between the Angola tournament and the World Cup in June is entirely coincidental," it would read. Certainly, South Africa, watching from a distance, have been anxious to stress that just because pitches have been poor, ticket-sales inconsistent and security assurances tragically flawed in Angola, that does not mean they will be the same some 2,000 kilometres south for Africa's big event later this year.

The football, too, has presented a very different Africa from the one that is supposed to show the best of itself, on its own soil, at the World Cup. For a start, the finest team at the 27th Cup of Nations, and the reigning champions of the continent, Egypt, will not be attending the World Cup. More's the pity, because Africa would certainly have a worthy flag-bearer if the Pharaohs were there. That they did not qualify for South Africa 2010 has no bearing today on their status as favourites to win a third successive Nations Cup, either, and that is partly because their opponents in Luanda, Ghana, probably have only a partial resemblance to the Black Stars XI that will line up against Serbia on June 13 in Pretoria for the opening fixture in World Cup Group D.

In Angola, Ghana have been without Michael Essien, their superstar, for all but 45 minutes of the tournament because of injury; Sulley Muntari, of Inter Milan, is absent because of a disagreement with the head coach, Milovan Rajevac, the Serbian who also chose to leave out striker Kevin-Prince Boateng. Rajevac lost the services of John Mensah and John Paintsil through injury just before the tournament. It is to his and Ghana's credit that their young side have made the final.

Faith in the youthful under-studies was established last September, when Ghana won the Under 20 World Cup. That had been a nice way for African football's momentous 2009/10 season to begin, what with that tournament being hosted in Africa - in Egypt - and won by an African team. A month later Ghana's senior players confirmed they would be off to the World Cup finals, to be joined by Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, and, after a tense play-off against Egypt, by Algeria. That quartet of qualifiers arrived in Angola and promptly lost their opening matches. The Ivorians, Cameroonians and Algerians have revealed so many flaws during the tournament that only a stuttering Nigeria, losing semi-finalists against Ghana, can now be considered a decent shout to reach the last 16 at the World Cup, and only because they are in a group with Greece and South Korea.

Egypt, by beating Nigeria and thrashing Algeria, have lorded it over the World Cup teams, and once again given the lie to the myth that North African sides struggle when the Nations Cup is hosted south of the Sahara. The Egyptians will tonight seek their third triumph in so-called black Africa in the last dozen years, having won in Burkina Faso in 1998 and in Ghana two years ago. Yet the Pharaohs remain an enigma to the rest of their continent. Often caricatured as sneering at African competition and looking more eagerly to impress the Middle East, Egyptian club football has towered above the rest of Africa for most of the new millennium, with Al Ahly seizing four African Champions Leagues and Zamalek another. Those Al Ahly sides in particular have given much to modern Egypt's pre-eminence, to lubricating the swift movement and combinations of the Pharaohs' football. For the past two Nations Cups, Egypt have been by a long way the most watchable team. For that, there must be some regret that huge, global audiences in June will not see them in action.