Pharaoh play

Only a few hundred Western football fans travelled to Egypt for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Matt Walker was one of them, watching all 24 teams compete in 15 matches over 9 days for the princely sum of £66. He reflects on the fan experience, from ticketing headaches to idiosyncratic stadiums, at the first summer AFCON.

It was an opportunity. After a string of African championships that were logistically difficult (Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, as co-hosts and then lone organisers) or dreary (South Africa, three years after their global heyday), the relocation from Cameroon to Egypt put AFCON 2019 within easy range of Europe. Not many others jumped at the chance. Perhaps, it’s easy to see why. Egypt still has an image problem, the fixtures were only confirmed in April and the tournament clashed with others. And it was going to be hot. Really hot.

The host country must take enormous credit for putting together the requisite tournament paraphernalia in just five months: championship mascot Tut, an evocative anthem and an army of volunteers. The stunning opening ceremony was centred around three psychedelic pyramids, cleverly echoing Egypt’s deep history with a modern beat. ‘We have quite a lot of culture here’ said Sherif, my understated neighbour who used to play football with legendary midfielder Ahmed Hassan, the world’s most capped international with 184 appearances for Egypt.

Egypt also devised an online ticket system with Fan IDs, as in Russia, giving the hosts a tight grip on security and preventing ticket touting at Egypt matches. This online system was a massive headache. It took around 100 attempts over two weeks to overcome its main failings: an email authentication system that demanded a code within 60 seconds (that inevitably arrived later) and a persistent lock on the payment page.

Tickets secured, the final hurdle was an unexpected one: getting into the opening match. The streets were eerily quiet around the Cairo International three hours before kick-off. It transpired that security had slammed shut the stadium gates four hours before Egypt’s clash with Zimbabwe. I circled the enormous site, a distance of some 3 miles, trying to find a way past padlocked gates and frosty officials. Almost resigned to my fate, I tried a senior-looking policeman with a snowy moustache, pleading that I had only just arrived from London and queued for three hours to pick up my tickets. ‘I like the English’ said the white-shirted official. After sweet-talking seven lines of security, I was the last spectator to walk alongside rows of tanks and enter the stadium.

‘A lot of people don’t want this tournament to go well’ said Victor, an English teacher I met at the stultifying dull match between South Africa and Namibia. But heavy-handed security led to long queues as fans were corralled by myriad barriers, multiple bag checks, body searches and interrogation on carrying the most banal items (USB cable, earphones, a notepad for my scrawls – “not in Arabic” complained another boring official). I looked jealously at a triangle-faced cat that ducked under the gates in Ismailia.

The security was hot, and so were the temperatures, often around 35 degrees. Several stadiums failed to sell water or food, despite fans sitting in the searing stands for up to six hours. Stewards in Alexandria even gifted hungry fans their unwanted chicken sandwiches and a box of shiny red apples. But, as always, it is easy to meet others in such strange and shared circumstances: fans from debutants Madagascar, Burundi and desert-robed Mauritanians, curious selfie-loving locals with a ubiquitous mantra (‘Welcome to Egypt’) and tiny groups of fellow travellers (Brits, Germans, a duo of Rapid-supporting Austrians and an elderly Belgian) with the same offbeat idea.

This was a very economical tournament for the football traveller, but ticket prices were criticised by locals, who typically earn about around a tenth of Western wages. Middle-class Egyptians, like Victor, who could afford tickets watched Egypt and fellow North African sides, leaving vast swathes of empty seats at other matches. Guinea-Bissau v Benin may not even attract a larger crowd were entrance free. Egyptians, only recently able to attend domestic matches after a six-year stadium ban, have little desire to watch sub-Saharan countries with whom they have little connection. There was also a strong suspicion that the organisational powers were content costly and complex ticketing prevented large crowds gathering. There was no avoiding the masses at sold-out Egypt matches, and it was entertaining to observe security suits sweating even more profusely as savvy supporters chanted ‘Aboutrika’, the former Egypt forward declared a terrorist by the authorities.

The stadiums might have been middle-class, but the ornate Ramses railway station in Cairo remains a more equitable hub. I traipsed through seven carriages to my seat, attracting smiles from a truer cross-section of Egyptian society. Travelling between the four host cities was straightforward, by train and Uber, and the six stadiums were worth the journey alone for their interesting designs and surprisingly good toilets. The city stadium in Alexandria, considered the oldest arena in Africa, was a memorable hotchpotch of influences, flanked by nine separate stands with a celebratory arch at one end. I stayed at a laughably bad hotel in forgettable Suez, but the distinctive mock adobe stands of the city’s stadium were topped by a mobile phone mast cleverly disguised as a palm. Ismailia, a more agreeable place, had a pleasingly central stadium with sandy Art Deco flourishes.

In the capital, the Cairo International was an immense bowl, nerve-tingling in the hour before the hosts emerged, slightly less intense when the match was being played. The Al Salam stadium was the tournament wildchild, but had lovely retrospective touches such as enormous pitch-long screen, lit up with fairly lights using dodgy cabling, framing a scoreboard you could reach out and touch. The poor district of Al Salam is 30 kilometres north east of downtown Cairo but, Victor, the English teacher, went out of his way to drive me back to my hotel. The 30 June stadium was the most generic, but there remains charm in this tournament – I was upgraded to the most expensive seats with the Senegal support as I was wearing a Papa Bouba Diop shirt.

The tournament’s appeal is retained by this randomness. I met Congolese, Moroccans (who clutched a flag mistakenly promoting the ‘Atlantic Lions’) and a cluster of well-informed Kenyans. ‘We have to show Tanzania that we are the boss of football. They are just the boss of Kilimanjaro.’ Kenya beat their East African neighbours 3-2, a sublime overhead kick from striker Olunga the highlight of an unexpectedly thrilling match. The footballing fare, with global stars competing against workaday players on well-kept lawns, was otherwise as varied as expected. I witnessed two new world records: the greatest number of foul throws (virtually all ignored by the officials) in any championship, and the most audacious backheeled assist.

And I also saw Asamoah Gyan, finally looking his age, play in a fourth major tournament. I was the first Ghana fan to arrive for their opening match against draw-specialists Benin. Ghanaians, mostly ex-pats working in Cairo unlike the government-backed fans flown in by some countries, congregated around my white Gyan shirt, some reserving seats using packets of McVitie’s digestive biscuits, others misguidedly cheering as the white-shirted Béninois took an early lead. “There is no fun, no freedom” said Milly, about her life working in Egypt. There may not have been much freedom at this heavily-policed tournament, nor much fun at my final goalless double-header in Ismailia, but AFCON 2019 was another heady experience.

On to Cameroon 2021!

15 matches – 6 stadiums – 9 days – 24 teams

1 – Egypt 1-0 Zimbabwe – Cairo International – Match rating: 6/10 – Attendance: 73,500
2 – Nigeria 1-0 Burundi – Alexandria – 5/10 – Attendance: 700
3 – Guinea 2-2 Madagascar – Alexandria – 7/10 – Attendance: 1,200
4 – Tunisia 1-1 Angola – Suez – 6/10 – Attendance: 4,500
5 – Mali 4-1 Mauritania – Suez – 7/10 – Attendance: 1,800
6 – Cameroon 2-0 Guinea-Bissau – Ismailia – 5/10 – Attendance: 2,000
7 – Ghana 2-2 Benin – Ismailia – 8/10 – Attendance: 2,000
8 – Uganda 1-1 Zimbabwe – Cairo International – 5/10 – Attendance: 30,000
9 – Egypt 2-0 DR Congo – Cairo International – 6/10 – Attendance: 74,500
10 – Algeria 1-0 Senegal – Cairo 30 June – 6/10 – Attendance: 20,000
11 – Kenya 3-2 Tanzania – Cairo 30 June – 9/10 – Attendance: 2,000
12 – Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast – Cairo Al Salam – 7/10 – Attendance: 20,000
13 – South Africa 1-0 Namibia – Cairo Al Salam – 2/10 – Attendance: 2,000
14 – Ghana 0-0 Cameroon – Ismailia – 4/10 – Attendance: 3,500
15 – Benin 0-0 Guinea-Bissau – Ismailia – 3/10 – Attendance: 1,200

* Attendances estimated at kick-off

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