African soccer fans can finally book their flights to the 2019 African Cup of Nations after Egypt was confirmed as the host of this year’s tournament.
Africa’s soccer confederation (CAF) voted overwhelmingly in favor of Egypt over South Africa this week after South Africa struggled to get financial guarantees. The head of South African soccer has claimed the CAF didn’t supply him with the details of their financial obligations which prevented the government from being able to make the guarantees, but either way, the vote was almost unanimous.
This comes rather late in the game, just five months from the start of the tournament, after the original hosts Cameroon pulled out. While Morocco flirted with the idea of hosting AFCON 2019, only South Africa and Egypt bid to fill in for Cameroon. Countries pulling out of bidding for AFCON tournaments seems to be the norm, Morocco 2015 ended up being held in Equatorial Guinea, and Libya 2017 ended up in Gabon.
Egypt’s bid reportedly includes seven venues in six cities around the country, with two stadiums in Cairo, including the 75,000-capacity Cairo International Stadium.
Egypt has the soccer infrastructure, heritage and enthusiastic fans required to make a great tournament, and is relatively easy to get to. But it’s not without its problems. Fans were only allowed to attend league matches again this season after a six year ban which began in the aftermath of the deaths of over 70 Al-Ahly fans in 2012. Attendances have still been heavily restrictedand many supporters groups are still banned from attending games due largely to their role in political protests. As these fans are among the most passionate in Egypt, the tournament would certainly be poorer if these groups are absent.
Egypt in June and July, when the tournament will be played, is also rather hot. Games can be played at night, but the extra games in the enlarged 24-team tournament may make such flexible scheduling difficult.
While the 2022 World Cup and this year’s Asian Cup are being played in the winter to avoid the hot summers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, The CAF moved what was previously a winter tournament to the summer months in order to avoid clashing with the European soccer leagues. This will mean more people watch AFCON 2019, and the continent’s biggest stars will be playing, but it may also mean that the soccer on offer is played at a much slower pace due to the heat of the Egyptian summer.
With Egypt only having five months to prepare, and the tournament falling at the worst time of the year to play soccer in the country, it may have been smarter for the CAF to postpone the tournament to next winter.
The CAF has also adopted a 24-team format for the tournament, and the extra demands this puts on the host seem to be the straw that broke the back of Cameroon’s bid, which was already struggling due to many internal problems in the country.
It does however mean that more countries get a chance to play at AFCON 2019, with Mauritania and Madagascar making their debuts at the tournament after they guaranteed qualification with one round of games to spare. They are among the 14 teams who have already qualified. The other teams, including both Cameroon and South Africa, will have to get the right results in the March international break before they can start dreaming of Egypt.