The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2019) is set to roll in Cairo late on June 21, with hosts Egypt taking on Zimbabwe. Even before the kickoff, the buzz is that this tournament will see the coronation of Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s talismanic star, as the continent’s premier footballer of the generation.
Egypt have always done well in the Africa Cup of Nations, having won seven titles so far, and narrowly missing out to Cameroon in the final of the 2017 edition in Gabon. The hosts would be keen to banish that disappointment as well as the poor showing at the FIFA World Cup in Russia last year, where Egypt finished bottom of their group with three defeats in three games.
Mo Salah’s presence makes Egypt the centre of attention, across the globe in fact. But Egypt always start favourites regardless of the stars in their roster, especially at home. They have hosted AFCON four times prior this, winning thrice (1959, 1986 and 2006), and finishing third in 1974.
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Egypt coach Javier Aguirre, who has been in charge of the side’s eight matches so far, winning six out of them, told The National that though the Salah phenomenon is overwhelming, Egypt’s footballing culture and history is big too.
“In Egypt, football is almost a religion," said their head coach, before equating Salah to Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Mohamed Salah is like… do you remember David Beckham at Real Madrid? I was living there at the time [while in charge of Atletico Madrid] and it was unimaginable,” he added.
“Many security guards. He could not even go to the street. With Mohamed, it's very difficult. Today, in Muslim countries, in African countries, he's the best. No doubt about it. For the fans, he's like [Lionel] Messi or Cristiano [Ronaldo]. It's unbelievable.”
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Egypt’s preliminary group contain Zimbabwe, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among the other possible challengers to the hosts in the fag end of the tournament would be the Senegal team, led by Salah's Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane. They are the highest-ranked team in the tournament. Besides Tunisia, Nigeria and Morocco -- ranked above Egypt in the FIFA list -- are serious contenders too.
AFCON 2019 VENUES
Cairo International Stadium (Cairo); 30 June Stadium (Cairo), Al Salam Stadium (Cairo), Alexandria Stadium (Alexandria), Suez Stadium (Suez), Ismailia Stadium (Ismailia)
Group A: Egypt, DR Congo, Uganda, Zimbabwe
Group B: Nigeria, Guinea, Madagascar, Burundi
Group C: Senegal, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania
Group D: Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Namibia
Group E: Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Angola
Group F: Cameroon, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau
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