The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations that will kick off in Egypt tomorrow arrives in a fragile moment in the African football reality.
The administrative mess in the Confederation of African Football, CAF, together with the shaky socio-political present in Egypt, the host country, is creating a deep shadow on the games.
Only three weeks ago, in Rades, Tunisia, CAF was exposed in its utmost shame, in the infamous VAR incident in the Champions League final second leg between Esperance and Wydad Casablanca.
Three days later, the African football governing body asked Esperance to return the medals and the cup they received. Obviously, the Tunisians refused. Meanwhile, CAF President, Ahmed Ahmed, was arrested in Paris for corruption allegations. If that's not enough the CAF website was hacked and damaged. All of this took place only a few weeks ahead of African football most prominent event - the AFCON.
Egypt, who has been chosen as a host only six months ago instead of Cameroon, are in a continuous social crisis under president Abdelfatah al-Sisi. Five days before the opening whistle of the tournament, Mohamed Mursi, the former Egyptian president, has died during his trial, in what created a harsh environment among the foreign media, but within Egypt was totally silenced by the regime.
So what can we expect from this tournament? Stories. And a lot of them.
Here's a short analysis on each one of the main protagonist national teams, of the boiling Egyptian summer which is - the Africa Cup of Nations 2019.
A clear favourite to go all the way. Not only because they play at home, but also because they have one of the world's best players - Mohamed Salah. But Egypt has more than Salah.
In fact, the Pharaohs comes with a 'mini' golden generation - no less than eight professionals who play abroad. Ahmed Hegazi (West Bromwich Albion); Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa); Ahmed Hassan Koka (Olympiacos); and Mahmoud Trezeguet (Kasimpasa).
With Mexican coach Javier Aguirre, the Egyptians hope to win their eighth African championship and establish their status as the biggest and most successful football nation in the continent.
As we mentioned earlier, winning the title would be a bit of an 'opium for the masses' for the Egyptians. The people will enjoy some satisfaction after a challenging decade, while the government will squeeze every PR drip they can in case of a triumph.
One of the best national teams in Africa historically, with a less impressive present at the moment. Without Dieumerci Mbokani & Junior Kabananga and only Yannick Bolasie for the rescue of the Fimbu Team, the Leopards will likely say goodbye to Egypt early than expected. Yet, Florent Ibenge, the coach, always arrives in big tournaments with rabbits in the hat.
The Supereagles, are always a team to watch in such tournaments, but looking back to former squads Nigeria has sent to AFCON's - this one is not impressing, to say the least. If Henry Onyekuru continues his form from the Turkish Superlig and all the pieces will combine into a decent unit - Nigeria can cause an outburst in Egypt.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Senegal is the best West African national team at the moment. With Aliou Cisse as a manager and his partners for the outstanding 2002 team in the coaching staff, the Teranga Lions, are fulled by both football intellect and tradition. With world-class players as Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly & Balde Keita, the skies are the limits for Senegal.
Djemal Belmadi's Saharian Foxes are quite an enigma in this tournament, to be honest. On the one hand, they have Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli & Islam Slimani, but on the other hand, it's a few years now that they can produce the miracles that were so identified with them in two editions of the World Cup in 2010 & 2014. In AFCON 2017 Algeria looked lost and left the party early in the group stage, but in a group with Tanzania, Kenya & Senegal - all they need is one Baghdad Bounedjah in scoring form, and it will be enough for a place in the knockouts. From there, everything is opened.
Morocco is by far one of the most inspiring & mind-blowing talent pools in the continent. With players such as Hakim Ziyech, Younes Belhanda, Medhi Benatia & others, the Atlas' Lions of Herve Renard were supposed to be clear favourites to win their first AFCON title since 1976. But, the Moroccans got a sharp reality check in their preparations friendlies with losses to Gambia & Zambia. If that's not enough, Abderrazak Hamdallah, the Saudi Pro League top scorer with 34 goals in 26 games this season - has left the squad after a shambolic argument with Fayçal Fajr over a penalty. The bad blood among the dressing room is a massive hint of the level of unity in the Moroccan camp, and also a big question mark over the two times AFCON winner coach, Renard, ability to control his players. If there has been a wrong way to enter a vital tournament - Morocco has done it ideally before this one.
The Elephants are always a story in tournaments as such. This year, after years of arriving with experienced and established football stars such as Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers & co., they count on the young talents. Nicolas Pepe of Lille, Wilfried Zaha from South London's Crystal Palace and AC Milan's Franck Kessie will be the leaders of the 1992 & 2015 African champions. With the Ivorians, it usually gets emotional, as we all remember the famous story of how Drogba and the class of 2006 brought peace talks in the country's civil war between North to South. A spot in the semifinal can help in maintaining the peaceful mood the country has been since the last round of fightings at the beginning of the decade.
The Bafana Bafana used to be a respectable member of African football cream, but that's not where things are at the moment. The Diski style football nation glory days are far away, dating back to the event that killed their international football aspiration: 2010 World Cup. The South African Premier League sends 42 players to the tournament this year (second with English Premier League, both trailing after French Ligue 1 with 89). Percy Tau is the biggest name in the squad, and it says it all. Everything beyond the last 16 spots will be an achievement for them.
Tunisia might be the one that will shock everyone. In the previous World Cup, the Carthage Eagles were solid enough to hold England until the final whistle, challenge Belgium and battle Panama. Tunisian football is currently on the rise in the continental level, with the success of Esperance Tunis and the Tunisian coaches in North African clubs. The always quiet but on the same dangerous team is likely to storm the AFCON with Ferjani Sassi, Anice Badri and Taha Khneissi. Wouldn't bet that they would create a remake for their 2004 winning campaign, but definitely can count as 'black horses'.
Ghana is one of the iconic western African football powers. The Black Stars have won the tournament on four different occasions and gained second place in five more. Yet, it seems that with all the mess going on around the captain armband with Asamoah Gyan & Andre Ayew, the ongoing tensions between the sports ministry and the FA - Kwesi Appiah and his players will need a miracle to retain a spot in the final.
The reigning champions are a huge question mark for this year competition. Without a clear superstar to lead a random group of players, it seems that Christian Bassogog, the 2017 edition's MVP, is Clarence Seedorf only hope. Only if you rate Eric Choupo Moting, who declined the call from the Indomitable Lions in the previous tournament, and now he is the captain. Go figure. Anything beyond the first knockout round will be a huge upset and success. But who knows. This is exactly was the situation before last AFCON, but then Hugo Broos and his players took the jackpot. Asante Sana.
Worth a mention:
Kenya - It's good to see the Harambee Stars back in the African football main stage. Tottenham's Victor Wanyama should be enough for a spot in the knockouts.
Tanzania - After a long 40 year wait, one of the most passionate football nations in Africa is back to the AFCON. Mbwana Samatta & Simon Msuva are a lethal threat indeed. A victory in the Eastern African derby over Kenya will make AFCON 2019 a sweet one for the Taifa Stars.
Uganda - Denis Onyango is the best goalkeeper in Africa for a few years now, but the Cranes will need each one of the players in top form to achieve some greatness in this. Zimbabwe - Two words: Khama Billiat. Watch them if you want to witness pure African football magic. Burundi - Debutants are always exciting, especially when they have Saido Berahino and Cedric Amissi in the squad.
Madagascar - Other first timers, the oldest team in the competition (average age 27.9) but with few of the coolest names in the race. Razakanantenaina, Andrianarimanana, Andriamahitsinoro, Rakotoharimalala, Andrianantenaina, Nomenjanahary, Sandratrinaiana, Rakotondrazaka, Randrianarisoa, RandrianasoloIlaimaharitra, Rakotoarisoa, Andriastima, Rambeloson, Raveloson. Yup. A true story.