Having a ball
Come what may, Alaa Abdel-Ghani
is determined to enjoy the African Cup of Nations, which begins tomorrow
Scientists have reported that the world is shaped like a soccer ball. We already knew that. Seeing how popular football is it seems only natural that after eons of trying to decide what shape to take the globe eventually opted for the shape of the ball its inhabitants like most. Not that the theory doesn't have flaws. If the Earth were to have taken the shape of what its inhabitants most like to eat it would be flat as a pizza.
Still, there is no denying that football is the most universally accepted popular pastime. It is sport No 1. And for three weeks, starting tomorrow, football will be impossible to ignore, as Egypt hosts the African Cup of Nations (ACN), the biggest sports prize on the continent.
After the World Cup and the European Championship, the ACN is arguably the world's third most important football tournament. They might protest in Asia and South America, but they shouldn't: after all, five African countries are allowed into the World Cup as opposed to only four from Asia and South America. A fifth country from each of these continents may also qualify but a play-off with other regional zones is needed. Africa has a short cut. Five countries qualify, no questions asked. Thus, FIFA deems Africa stronger in football than Asia and even the traditionally dominant South America, with its continental crown jewels of Brazil and Argentina.
Because the ACN is so valuable, it is coveted by many and in Egypt the knives are out. At least half a dozen teams are standing between Egypt and glory. The Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Tunisia, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal are all in with a chance of bagging the title. And that's not to mention the other teams -- including Morocco, Togo and Angola -- standing between Egypt and glory.
Let's pause briefly at South Africa. If you're only as good as your last game, Egypt's 2-1 loss to Bafana Bafana bodes ill. But the current South African team is nothing like the one that won the 1996 ACN. Having lost four out of 10 qualifiers, and missing out on the World Cup after two successive appearances, with the best will in the world South Africa is a long shot. Unfortunately, it had little trouble with Egypt in the countries' last warm-up before the ACN begins.
With Egypt, 11 teams harbour reasonable hopes of snaring the cup -- out of a total 16 teams, that is almost 70 per cent worth of hope in one tournament, making Egypt's job all the harder.
Where, exactly, does Egypt stand on this huge soccer pitch of motivation and aspiration? First the good news. It has won the ACN four times, a record it shares with Cameroon and Ghana. It has gone to the ACN 20 out of 25 times, another record. And of African teams it is the top seed with 101 points, followed by Nigeria with 95 and Cameroon with 91. It has among its arsenal Ahmed "Mido" Hossam, a name as big in Europe as his 190 centimetre, 90-kilo frame. Egypt is also hosting the event, in the refurbished Cairo Stadium, where the support of 74,500 spectators is expected to be a big plus.
The party poopers, though, will point out that many of Egypt's achievements are history and history, as we all know, tells you where you've been not where you're going.
They will also point out that when Egypt won its first two ACN titles, in 1957 and 1959, there were only three teams in the competition.
They will downplay the importance of the home field advantage. In the previous 24 ACN tournaments the host raised the trophy 10 times; the 14 other times their performance raised only questions.
To drive the point home detractors claim that fans, no matter how many of them there are, cannot simply will a title to their team. And as evidence they will cite the ACN in 1974, when Egypt played host and crashed out in the semi-final.
One more thing. The last time Egypt won the ACN, in 1998, Nigeria, the best in Africa at the time, did not participate in the event owing to reasons surrounding the death of Nigerian writer and peace activist Ken Saro Wiwa.
It doesn't get any easier. When the ACN and the World Cup are played in the same year, as is the present case, countries participating in both do not usually do well in the ACN, their focus and energy naturally being directed more towards the World Cup. But this year is different. For the first time, in Germany 2006, four African teams will be appearing in the World Cup -- and in the ACN they will want to prove their qualifying was no fluke. And Tunisia -- one of the qualifiers -- will surely defend its ACN crown tenaciously.
But for those who have qualified for the World Cup before but did not make it this time what better redemption than to win one of the other great soccer tournaments.
The pressure is certainly on Egypt, from the fans and the media. Both want Egypt not only to win but bury the ghost of Egypt's big fat zero in its ill-fated campaign to host the 2010 World Cup.
If it's going to be a difficult ACN for Egypt, it will be equally hard for the other participants. The important thing is that as they play and we watch, we all have a good time. If the globe really does look like a ball, then we might as well have one.