The expanded and new-look Africa Cup of Nations was supposed to be a celebration of football in the cradle of civilisation, but politics grabbed most of the attention and the stars were relegated to being extras in their own show.
The stench of politics was all over the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) like cheap perfume. It was intrusive and unrelenting in its assault on the senses. The players – including some of the best in the world, like Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah, Kalidou Koulibaly and Nicolas Pépé – tried to mask the smell with the aroma of football but it didn’t work.
The main event ended up being the sideshow. Most of the attention was taken up by suits jostling for positions, by those trying to steady the crumbling house of cards that is the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and by the Egyptian government that wanted to use this tournament to win over the continent and the world.
“If you look at this Africa Cup of Nations, there was equal coverage of the football matches, which were extraordinarily successful, and the off-field, boardroom issues,” CAF’s new third vice-president, the controversial Danny Jordaan said. “If you go to Uefa, there are no boardroom issues at the time of the Euro finals. In order to get there, we have to address these issues so that by the time you deliver your premier competitions, that must be the focus and nothing else.”
On the eve of the Afcon final, most of the attention wasn’t on Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi and his Senegalese counterpart Aliou Cissé. The two held court at the Cairo International Stadium just before becoming only the third pair of African coaches to contest the final of the continent’s premier competition when Algeria and Senegal met in the final on 19 July.
Instead, attention was stolen by events happening almost 13km away at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Cairo where CAF held its general assembly. There were rumours that former first vice-president Amaju Pinnick was planning a coup to oust Ahmad Ahmad, the most powerful man in African football.
Before the tournament Ahmad was questioned by French authorities regarding the controversial deal with Technical Steel that broke CAF protocol. He came into Afcon even more on the ropes, with corruption and sexual misconduct allegations levelled against him threatening to make his tenure as CAF president short-lived. But he left Egypt with his grip on power strengthened, by surrounding himself with people faithful to him.
Ahmad kept his seat. Pinnick lost his. Jordaan was elevated. And that wasn’t even the most dramatic event at the Marriott. The president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, addressed delegates with a speech that reeked of arrogance when he explained the world governing body’s decision to appoint Fatma Samoura as Fifa’s general delegate for Africa for six months. The appointment comes after the executive committee of CAF asked Fifa to help it navigate its way out of the troubled waters it finds itself in.
Apart from the corruption charges levelled against Ahmad, the winner of the 2018-19 CAF Champions League is still undecided with both Wydad Casablanca and Esperance taking the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to fight against the order of a replay of the second leg of the final. Both argue that they are the rightful champions even though Esperance lifted the trophy after Wydad refused to return to the pitch following being denied a legitimate goal and subsequently finding out that the monitor for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) wasn’t working.
Another embarrassing moment for CAF was having their social media platforms announce that Victor Gomes would officiate the Afcon final when that wasn’t the case. Alioum Alioum of Cameroon, who handled the match, was the only referee who was formally announced as the man in charge of the final. When asked how this error happened, Ahmad couldn’t offer a proper explanation apart from saying “this is why we need Fifa to help us”, hinting that some people within CAF might be working to undermine him.
The decision to get Fifa to essentially run CAF has been met with a lot of criticism. Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin is one of the critics. He slammed the decision and Infantino’s order that the other football governing bodies agree to the intervention by 10.30am that day after notifying them at 1.50am.
“Never in the history of our institutions has the Fifa secretary general, who under the Fifa statutes leads the organisation, been placed on secondment to take control of a confederation, even with the latter’s consent,” Ceferin lashed out at Infantino.
Infantino vs Ceferin goes to Africa
The Fifa president responded arrogantly in his speech at the assembly.
“I have been hearing and reading, I haven’t been reading because I don’t read anymore. But I am hearing because people tell me about the few things that have been said about this decision. I have to say that I am really puzzled by some of the comments,” Infantino said.
“Even yesterday [17 July] I was asked by someone from Europe, actually, [a journalist] was the decision unanimous? Unanimously we know that we have to do something right. Of course everyone has different views and opinions on how to go about doing it, but we need to decide and act. The only thing I am asking you and the public, judge us on the results. Judge us by what we will obtain at the end of the day. And you will see what we will obtain because we have already demonstrated that already in turning around Fifa.”
The new-look Afcon, with 24 teams and playing in June-July for the first time, had to somehow mask this stench with its football. It couldn’t. It didn’t help that most games were played in front of small crowds. The ticketing system, which required supporters first to get a fan ID – a laborious process in which the authorities stopped short of asking for blood, DNA samples and a family tree, such is its invasive nature – played a big role in the poor attendance.
Once fans had gone through that process, they struggled to get tickets for games that should have been easy to access. Fans kept getting sold-out notifications even when that wasn’t the case. This comes on the back of the government banning Ultras from stadium, punishing them for their involvement in the overthrowing of former President Hosni Mubarak. This resulted in Egypt being stripped of its greatest arsenal, the vociferous and terrifying Ultras who send shivers down the spine of their opponents before the ball has even been kicked.
Killing Egyptian football
A member of Ultras Ahlawy was in tears after the Pharaohs’ last 16 loss to Bafana Bafana. His tears weren’t caused by Bafana’s loss. They were a result of seeing the death of something he truly loved. With a hoarse voice, he explained how driving the Ultras away was going to kill football.
“I am a member of Ultras, there are some good and bad things about us,” he said, without wanting to reveal his name. “But there are more good things than bad. This isn’t Egyptian football. This clap-clap thing. These people [government] are going to kill Egyptian football. I have a choice between either speaking out or protecting my family. If I speak out, my family will suffer. I don’t mind suffering, but I don’t want to hurt my family.”
It has been alleged that the government preferred fewer crowds at the stadiums because they weren’t likely to cause “mischief” or make grand political statements. But those statements were still made. Fans lit up their phones during games at the 20th, 22nd and 74thminutes in honour of the 20 supporters who died in the 30 June Stadium stampede, exiled superstar Mohamed Aboutrika who wore No. 22, and the 74 souls who lost their lives in the Port Said Stadium disaster.
An Algerian was arrested and deported for making a political statement that called for change. That fan was denied the privilege of seeing his team, the Desert Foxes, being crowned African champions at the home of their bitter rivals, Egypt. The rivalry between these two North African countries is so deep that Belmadi scoffed at the question of what he thought about the Egyptians who backed Algeria in their 1-0 win over Senegal in the final.
“I have to go to an eye and an ear doctor when I get back home because I didn’t see [or hear] that,” Belmadi said. A large number of Egyptians who were at Cairo International Stadium when Algeria took on Nigeria in the semifinal and Senegal in the final rooted for the Desert Foxes’ opponents. But it didn’t deter them on their road to glory.
From chumps to champs
Algeria’s win was emotional and significant. A year ago they were in a desperate situation that was highlighted by crashing out of the 2017 Afcon in the group stage despite boasting a talented squad and watching the 2018 Fifa World Cup on TV. Algeria had the players but didn’t have a team.
The animated and popular Belmadi transformed them into a team that embodied Algeria: tough, resilient and not backing down from a challenge. Algerians haven’t stopped their fight for change despite removing long-standing dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika. They want key members of the old regime to also step down before voting.
Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah was greeted by boos and cheers from Algerian fans when his name was mentioned during the trophy presentation. Bensalah would have laughed if you told him at the start of the year that come July he would be the most powerful man in Algeria when he witnesses the Desert Foxes crowned the kings of African football. Belmadi, however, always believed that Algeria would win the Afcon. From the moment he set foot in Egypt, he never shied away from stating that the target was to win the tournament.
“Saying that I wanted to win the Afcon early into my stint was me sending a signal to my players. I wanted to get them in the right mindset,” Belmadi said.
It was poetic in a way that this group of Algerian players started their revolution on a Friday, the day Algerians have been using to protest peacefully since February. But there was nothing peaceful about Belmadi’s team. Their display bordered on the thuggish, prepared to do whatever necessary to win the trophy. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.
Baghdad Bounedjah, scorer of the winning goal in the final, was a pitbull. He was aggressive and worked tirelessly to keep Senegal’s defenders honest. He was an emotional wreck after the match. Draped in the flag of Algeria, he spoke about passion and not money being the fuel that drove the national team.
Afcon 2019’s legacy
Two iconic pictures stand out from Algeria’s triumph. The first is of that of a smiling Djamel Benlamri in the change room carrying his bloodied shirt. The towering defender sustained a cut on his face from a challenge by Sadio Mané. He needed a bandage to cover his bruised face and a new shirt because the one he was wearing originally was drenched in blood. His other kit was covered in grass and sweat. He gave his all, blood, sweat and tears, to get this cup. That was the modus operandi under Belmadi, instilling passion to leave everything for Algeria.
The other iconic moment was of Algerian players praying in front of their fans. While everyone was in the Sujūd position, Yacine Brahimi was captured before he bowed. His hands up in triumph, his eyes closed and screaming so much his veins showed.
Blood. Sweat. Tears. Passion. Unity. The five pillars of the new African champions.
The pillars of the CAF house Ahmad is in charge of, however, are shaky literally and figuratively. The continent’s football governing body is yet to reach an agreement with the Egyptian government on the renewal of the hosting agreement for their offices in Cairo. The agreement gives CAF diplomatic rights that makes things easier when it comes to hiring non-Egyptians because Ahmad plans to have a 50-50 split between Egyptians and people from the rest of the continent.
These political spats overshadowed the 2019 Afcon and its legacy. Nonetheless, the expanded edition showed that the gap between minnows and continental giants is shrinking. Egypt did a brilliant job in hosting the 24 teams. Each team had its own training pitch, there were plenty of hotels for accommodation and the pitches of the six stadiums were world class. But not many countries in the continent can pull this off. The 24-team tournament might have been a success in Egypt, but CAF is likely to look at co-hosting for the next editions in countries that don’t have Egypt’s infrastructure and financial muscle.
“This was an unforgettable event for more than one reason,” Ahmad said. “As an organisation we are experiencing some difficulties and turbulence. But we will get out of it. I am happy to be the president of CAF despite the difficulties. We are working to writing a different chapter at CAF.”
This article was first published by New Frame.