Egypt start Africa Cup of Nations on the right foot, even as Salah misfires
CAIRO -- When Egypt's winner came, it was little surprise to see one of their wingers tricking past two opponents before cutting inside and belting an unstoppable finish into the far corner, bringing the house down on the Africa Cup of Nations' opening night. It was just not the player we have all come to expect. Trezeguet, the mercurial left-sided player, was the man who ensured the hosts passed their first test and, on the opposite flank, Mohamed Salah was able to get away with a rare off night.
Salah broke through late on only to be thwarted by a low save from Zimbabwe's substitute goalkeeper Elvis Chipezeze, and it was the second presentable chance Egypt's talisman had squandered. Nothing really came off for him on this late, humid evening -- certainly nothing to justify the swell of anticipation around the International Stadium whenever he set off on another sortie towards the Warriors' goal.
But a little imprecision is generally forgiven on a competition's opening day. Egypt's collective scraped through on the pitch and early signs are that the country is rising to the occasion off it; they had handled the pressure of kick-starting a tournament that was only granted them in January and, for now, that was enough.
Egypt needed a stress-free night on an occasion that, given its tragic recent football history, was always going to stir some emotions. In the 20th minute a chant of "To the heavens, martyrs" rang around in memory of the 20 Zamalek fans who died after a confrontation with police outside Cairo's Air Defence Stadium in 2015. In the 74th minute, the same refrain could be heard, accompanied by a display of cellphone lights around the ground, honouring the 74 Al Ahly fans who lost their lives in the Port Said disaster three years before that. The sport has been played under a cloud here ever since; a successful Cup of Nations will entail remembering, while showing Egypt can move on.
Nothing was left to chance security-wise on a week when the country's former president, Mohamed Morsi, died while in custody as he was being tried for espionage charges. The lockdown when the present-day incumbent, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, arrived to take his seat in the stands -- addressing the crowd to open the tournament before doing so -- was grimly effective, although by then most of the red-shirted home supporters, who began filing into the 70,000-capacity venue eight hours before kickoff, were inside making a din that rarely let up.
They were warmed up by an opening ceremony, featuring laser and firework displays around three model pyramids, that exceeded most expectations as a tone-setter. Egypt burned brightly themselves early on and would have led without a series of fine saves from Edmore Sibanda, who was later stricken by injury. Trezeguet's blast meant the half-time scoreline was fair, but Javier Aguirre's side could not maintain their tempo and, had Evans Rusike not nodded a fine opportunity off target at the death, those misfires from the visibly frustrated Salah might have come at a high price.
"The second half was strange," Aguirre admitted. "They had most of the ball, we had a couple of counterattacks -- Salah had his chances. But hey, it's three points and we'll take it."
There is a nagging suspicion that Egypt, while a more cohesive attacking unit under Aguirre, still look to involve Salah too much. Perhaps the issue lies both ways: at times he seemed overly keen to involve himself in deep areas and there was a sense, throughout, that Egypt had not quite clicked consistently.
They were given flickers of trouble by a Zimbabwe side, lively and smart on the break, that only found an incisive final ball in those dying moments. "We didn't play well and didn't create enough chances to win the game," said coach Sunday Chidzambwa, a touch harshly on the first count. Zimbabwe's participation had been in doubt until earlier in the day, their players threatening to boycott amid a row over payments. Out on the grass they did not appear despondent and, on this evidence, can harbour realistic hopes of a last-16 place. Had they not appeared, the optics for a tournament that has endured a rocky buildup would have been horrendous.
But, like everything else, it proved to be all right on the night. Egypt will need to play better than this if they are to justify their billing as favourites; Salah will certainly be required to come to the party once the knockout stage begins. The scandal-hit Confederation of African Football will need to learn lessons of its own, like making water more readily available inside the stadia amid sweltering temperatures. But the tournament is up and running and so, for all the difficulties and the demons, are its hosts.