No country has won the Africa Cup of Nations three times running. Egypt s bid to do just that should be incentive enough for the players who definitely need motivation.
How hungry are the players for the ACN, starting in Angola on Jan. 10, after they failed to go to the World Cup? Most Egyptians, including the players, will tell you that if they had a choice between going to the World Cup and winning the African cup, they would choose the World Cup hands down. Winning the ACN has become second nature, old hat for us. We ve done it six times, two more than anybody else. What s one more?
But going to the World Cup, the greatest football show on earth, which we ve only gone to twice in our lives, the last one 20 years ago – now that would have been something new and more exciting. Not a few of our aging stars – Ahmed Hassan, Mohamed Abou-Trika, Wa el Gomaa and perhaps Essam El-Hadari – will be too old to play in any future World Cup, so 2010 was now or never. The ACN is simply not adequate compensation for the Word Cup, the world stage where you can show yourself like in no other place.
So now the players have to settle for second best, and get up for it.
It s like aiming for the stars but you hit a street lamp instead.
One thing in Egypt s favor is, ironically, the World Cup, to be played in only six months time. The countries playing in both the ACN and the World Cup the same year take the latter much more seriously. When they re playing in the ACN their minds are on the World Cup; they don t give 100 percent in the ACN, saving their best for the World Cup. They also fear injury and who wants to risk getting into harm s way in the ACN when the World Cup is right around the corner? In some cases, star players who need a rest or fear injury or fear aggravating an injury will pass up the ACN, replaced by newcomers who are given an opportunity to play by coaches who believe it a good time to try some new faces, since World Cup-bound teams are not pressured to do that well in the ACN.
When the ACN and the World Cup are played the same year, the teams playing in both tournaments look past the ACN and look forward to the World Cup. This helped Egypt win the ACN in three out of its six crowns – 1986, 1998 and 2006. In each of those years, Egypt was not playing in the World Cup but many of its opponents in the ACN were. We had only the ACN to concentrate on, believing it would make up somewhat for the Word Cup. Egypt took the ACN in those years dead seriously while the teams going to the World Cup made the ACN a side issue. In the upcoming ACN, Ghana, Cameroon, Cote d Ivoire, Algeria and Nigeria, all playing in the 2010 World Cup, will not be at their best, giving Egypt the edge.
As with the teams, no coach has won the ACN three consecutive times, which gives Hassan Shehata a shot at the record. Shehata renewed his contract for two more years but it s hard to see how he will stay on should we lose our crown. We would no longer be African champs nor are we going to the World Cup, so on what basis is Shehata supposed to remain?
Should he stay? Stay and do what? There will be no ACN championship until the start of 2012 and the next World Cup will be in 2014. The qualifications for either will not begin until at least a year before either tournament begins. In this empty space, what will Shehata be doing except counting the monthly money he will get for doing nothing?
In the record quest, Shehata has not been helped by the absence of essential players Abou-Trika, Amr Zaki and Mohamed Barakat. Abou-Trika and Zaki scored eight goals in the 2008 edition, more than half the 15 goals the entire team scored.
Still, Egypt remains one of the favorites for the ACN, facing Nigeria and minnows Benin and Mozambique in Group C. Egypt s opener against Nigeria, a two-time ACN winner, will be the toughest of the group lot. The fact that this will be only the third time Benin goes to the ACN and just the fourth for Mozambique should result in at least a second-place group finish for Egypt.
The chances are good for a quarter-final berth. Then, who knows?
Perhaps we ll meet Algeria again.