Wednesday, February 22, 2006

African Nations Cup The Final Egypt vs Ivory Coast

Have you ever arrived at a stadium nearly 5 hours before the start of a game ?
Probably not - in the English Premier League most supporters take their seats 5 minutes before kick off.
I took my well rehearsed route from my Giza hotel i.e. communal minibus (0.5 LE = 5p), metro (0.75LE = 7.5p) and 30 minute walk all done on a bright sunny day - similar to May in the UK. Except this was February in Cairo and Egypt were in the Final.
In Africa at the Nations Cup Final you never quite know what to expect and hence my over cautious approach - to ensure a good seat (tickets don't allocate specific seat numbers) and to be there well in advance of Mr Mubarak - whose presence meant all spectators had to been inside the stadium some 3 hours before the start. It was the first time I had seen the groundsmen mowing the grass before a game.
You need plenty to read, a good supply of nibbles (nuts in my case) and adequate water.
Fortunately the atmosphere generated by the local supporters meant the time did pass reasonably quickly.

As in many finals the game was not a classic but it did have drama. The pattern of the first half saw Egypt attack and Ivory Coast generally content to defend and play for breakaways. Not too many clear cut chances occurred.
The second half revolved around 3 significant moments - two misses by Drogba (one of which was a relatively easy opportunity) and a much disputed penalty after Barakat was brought down by Bouassi. Previously (and subsequently) reliable Egyptian captain Ahmed Hassan hits the post with the spot kick and Ivory Coast clear the ball.
The 90 minutes thus ends goalless with the Egyptians shading possession although the Ivorians with the solid presence of Drogba continued to threaten.
Extra time, as is often the case, fails to provide a winner and we go into the penalty shoot out.
This time the Egyptian captain scores decisively whereas Drogba (and Kone) have their efforts saved by the excellent El Hadary in the Egyptian goal.
It falls to Abu Treka to score the clincher and set off the great celebrations.
Egypt had kept their nerve , had played with great determination, no little skill and had overcome some drama (especially involving Mido) along the way to a deserved win.
Mr Mubarak does the honours as the (prolonged) presentations are made in front of his glassed-off VIP area to end a very successful tournament for the home team.

After a brief delay (again for HM to depart) I made the fastest way back to the hotel - the taxi making good time until we neared the Giza area where the density of traffic and general mayhem made any progress extremely slow - so I walked the remaining distance and had plenty of opportunity to appreciate the noisy, exuberant but peaceful (and presumably non-alcohol fueled) street celebrations.

Before returning to the UK I joined the tourist groups and visited the Pyramids , the impressive Egyptian Museum and the Cairo Citadel whilst fending off hustlers, negotiating with taxi drivers (Cairo is a big city and many sites are inaccessible by public transport) , enduring the pollution and managing to stay alive when crossing the road.
No question Egypt is a country of contrasts having within its midsts the relics of the dawn of civilisation and also a population that often has an everyday struggle to scratch out an existence.
And its interesting how you get used to seeing the local (Muslim) women with their heads (and often everything else) covered ,the women-only Metro carriages (often a riot of pastel coloured headscarves) and the dearth of bars. No bear midriffs or mini-skirts (or drunks) in sight.

So the African Nations Cup was won by the modern day Pharoahs in a place not too far from where their very successful namesakes' wonderous burial monuments were built some 4000 years ago.

Friday, February 17, 2006

African Nations Cup in Egypt 2006

What makes visiting the African Nations Cup so fascinating is that element of unpredictably & drama that almost inevitably occurs both on and off the pitch.
Having been in Tunisia for the last such event prepares you for some aspects (although this time there were no Algerian supporters to 'enliven' the proceedings) and knowing Cairo is the biggest city in Africa should give you more clues.
But being an independent traveller essentially getting around like the locals means being part of an everyday mayhem characterised by jam-packed roads , crazy drivers with no road discipline, very few traffic lights (that actually work) & worn-out pedestrian crossings that nobody would risk using.
In general you see few other tourists (for instance using the metro system or the communal mini-buses) as most take the package tour option where you are generally shielded from the local miasma and can go from site to site often ring-fenced by security areas (of which there are many)
However you do interact with the local populace, initially with the taxi drivers (typically you know when you have got close to the 'correct' price for a trip when the driver is visibly grumpy - if he isn't you've probably paid too much) then the street hustlers hanging around the hotels (suggested tactic - smile and wave them, gently, away - any dialogue not recommended) & then finally the real people.
Most Egyptians are very friendly and welcoming , from the children practicing their limited English (what is your name, how are you) and offering you their biscuits, tea and chocolate (as one did at a game in Port Said) to the adults saying 'welcome to Egypt' and thrusting bread, cheese & inevitably, nuts into your hands. Generally they show a generosity of spirit to visitors that tends to make you (temporarily) forget the hustlers.

In such tournaments it makes a difference when the host nation does well.
In the first phase of the competition Egypt progressed , winning their group and thus ensuring full stadia for their games played at the 75,000 capacity Cairo International Stadium.
Throughout the event the home country showed a determination and resilience to succeed that eventually was to take them to the final.
But not without some drama along the way.

Taking centre stage was Tottenham striker Mido. He came to the African Nations Cup as a success in the English Premiership , regularly scoring goals for Spurs who thus gained Egyptian fans along the way. His performances for Egypt however had been not so great (I was told) and even though he scored in the first game he generally performed under par and was taken off against Morocco, despite which he still retained the support of the fans.
His finest (thespian) moment came in the semi-final versus Senegal when with some 15 mins to go , and with the score at 1-1, coach Hassan Shehata decided to substitute the tall striker(again he'd been playing moderately) Seeing his number being displayed Mido went through the full gamut from complete disbelief to a major argument with Shehata before finally trudging off. The guy who came on , Amr Zaki, then proceeded the head the winner with his first touch, thus fully vindicating the coach's decision.
Mido was later suspended for 6 months & played no part in the final (except as a very animated spectator)

Apart from the success of the home team the tournament tended to highlight the limitations of some of the World Cup qualifiers , especially Angola, Togo and Ghana.
Cameroon had the best player , in Samuel Eto'o, but ultimately they couldn't get past Drogba's Ivory Coast team with the star man himself missing the crucial penalty.
Crowd pleaser Jay Jay Okocha was to go out on a very low key note , in the irrelevant 3rd place game, but potential starlet Mikel (subject of a Chelsea/Man Utd bid) scored in one match then seem to run out of steam in another.
There were some spectacular goals and a few flare ups resulting in dismissals but with a generally high level of play and organisation that you have now come to expect from players of this continent.

As always the African supporters were colourful and vibrant. To be near such groups meant you couldn't help swaying to the rhythms.
Just one sour note caused some pause for thought when some Nigerian supporters took exception to a local man - at first I thought he had stolen something but it turned out he had taken a picture (without asking permission) of a Nigerian woman. Eventually the situation calmed down - but it highlights a cultural difference.

But overall being in the stadiums was a comfortable experience - it had to be as I watched 5 double headers and 17 games in total. The one exception being one game in Alexandria when the heavens opened and we were absolutely drenched for about 45 minutes. There being no cover - even under a policeman's shield.
Apart from the Cairo International Stadium the stadia were of a medium size with the crowds often heavily reinforced by military personnel dressed in guantanamo bay style outfits trucked in to fill up the otherwise empty seats. It was only at the Egypt games that they tended not be needed.

Obviously being non-Egyptian (and non-African) inevitably means you meet other Europeans , typically either in the stadiums or on the trains, and this time it was many Germans and other English - often groundhoppers. The opportunity to discuss your travels and experiences often filled many a long journey.