AFCON 2019: North Africans Resist

The first round of the African Cup of Nations' group stage has come to an end, which means that all the North African teams have played their first games in the competition. It was an excellent chance to see how all the Arab national teams entered the tournament, as well as to get a reminder for the resistance character of football in Egypt & North Africa.

Before the tournament kicked off last Monday, African football got a reality check. The sudden death of Mohammad Mursi, former Egypt's president of the Muslim Brotherhood, during his trial, was an event with a very explosive potential.

Nobody knew what to expect. Demonstrations? Protests? With only a few days left to openings of the most significant event of Egypt in the era of President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, it was unclear what waves this incident will cause. But not surprisingly, Mursi's death had simply gone unnoticed. It did not receive live media coverage, his funeral was private and closed, there was no official ceremony like that of former presidents - nothing that could evoke the revolutionary or protesting instinct of the Egyptian people.

ֿEverything went utterly smooth, until ... the opening game between Egypt & Zimbabwe.

Almost 80,000 people filled the Cairo International Stadium, sang the anthem passionately as they always do in Egypt. Everything went by the book, but then, in the 22nd minute, tens of thousands of Egyptian fans sang 'Abutrika, Aboutrika' - calling in the name of the Egypt and Al-Ahly's legendary number 22.

Aboutrika is a massive symbol in Egypt. Beyond the fact that he is defined as the 'Egyptian Maradona', Trika is a person with explicit opinions and agenda, which he is almost always ready to share. He has a degree in philosophy, and tends to express his political views quite often. In the 2008 AFCON, Aboutrika scored a goal against Sudan, revealing a shirt with the words 'Sympathize with Gaza', while Israel & Hamas were in another circle of violence.

Aboutrika is identified with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and that is why two years ago Egyptian authorities declared him a terrorist, what keeps him away from the country. Today he lives in Qatar, and he's among the football commentator staff of Bein.

So demonstrations did not take place after Mursi's death, but a song in the 22nd minute in honour of Aboutrika, a significant symbol for the Egyptian regime opponents, while al-Sisi at the stadium - says a lot about the current social-political mood in Egypt.

By the way - in all of this, Egypt won the opening game 1-0, in a pretty average performance.

There is nothing to say. The Egyptian people's support for his team is always more exciting and more prominent than what happens on the pitch itself. But if it is necessary to give some professional emphasis upon Egypt, then one thing is clear - the Pharaohs are not there yet. For years, even though he guided them for a first World Cup after 28 years, Hector Cúper received tons of criticism for his defensive, dull and 'negative' football. So Cúper is no longer here, but the Mexican Javier Aguirre is. Judging by the match against Zimbabwe, without Mahmoud Trezeguet's goal - it seems that all the 80,000 people were much less pleased and would not hesitate to show it.

Mohammed Salah was guarded pretty well by Divine Lunga (yes he has a great name), and could not show his superiority clear enough. Fortunately for the Pharaohs, their group is easy, but they do need to hook up fast if they want to gain momentum in a home tournament they must win.

In the meantime, it appears that Aguirre, with all due respect, is not that different from Cúper in manners of approach. Otherwise, the problem is in Egyptian players and not in the foreign coaches. Yet, it's too early to say.

What is sure is that there is a slight pressure on the Egyptian national team, and the stories of sexual harassment that has occurred in the last few days regarding Amr Warda, Paok Thessaloniki's player, does not add to the excellent atmosphere at all. All come up to the fact that Egypt must explode against DR Congo.

But Egypt is not alone. Herve Renard's Morocco 'stank' the pitch for 89 minutes just to win the unhappy self-exile of Itamunua Keimuine, who entered only nine minutes before that and received a yellow as well.

In the absence of Younes Belhanda, Hakim Ziyech was unable to be both the leader, the sorcerer and the playmaker all at the same time. With the entrance of Sofian Boufal Morocco looked only a little bit better than Namibia, whose marquee player was Manfred Starke, a Namibian born German, and the captain Ronald Ketjijere, who is a lawyer by profession and works for the South African State Prosecutor's Office.

Herve Renard will have to connect his players who currently look off, not connected and exceptionally not sharp if he wants to go through the quarter-finals. Morocco is the most talented team in the tournament. The question is whether it will succeed in being the best team.

Algeria, on the other hand, came with an impressive cast - Riyad Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi and Baghdad Bounedjah, world's top scorer in 2018, but without too much of expectations.

After the last difficult years, Algerians just want to witness and enjoy a glimpse of the tremendous talent that this team has - and this is what happened in their first game. Although Kenya, which returned to the tournament after 15 years, is not an indication of the level that the Algerians will face in the knockout, but still - a 2-0 in versatile performance, arguably attractive football, with goals by the stars.

Djemal Belmadi can be happy, but not for long. His next test on Thursday is against the best team in the tournament which also easily won 2-0 against another East African team (Tanzania). This is a direct battle for the leadership of Group C.

And at last - Tunisia. Tunisia's first half against Angola was the best half of the tournament so far. There was relatively a lot of crowd in the stands at Suez Stadium, the heat was not that heavy, and it is evident that Tunisia also came to this tournament as it reached the last World Cup - stable and robust. Naim Saliti and Youssef Msakni are great players, and when they are with Wahbi Khazri, they are even getting better.

Yet, Tunisia's problem is actually on the bench in the form of an old coach, Alain Gieresse, who does not let the players get the best out of themselves. Or simply doesn't the players who should play, such Frejani Sassi. That's exactly how they lost their fits half advantage, against Angola - which looks like a pretty good team. Both teams held the ball for precisely the same time, kicked the same amount of shots on goal (4) while the Angolans got more corners and committed more fouls. Or in other words - were more determined. So Tunisia is solid but without a vision and inspiration, and in a group with a team like Mali who, like yesterday, 'plays with their wings' - the Carthage Eagles must wake up.

Luckily for them, they will probably go through because of the format. In the knockout stage, everything is open.

The Africa Cup of Nations is only warming up. Just make sure to listen carefully during the 22nd minute in each game of a North African team. Someone has a message for you.