The greatest sight in Egypt is not on any tourist’s brochure. In fact, even Egyptians haven’t seen much of it lately. But come 10pm on Friday 21 June, Egyptians and the African continent at large will see a sight as majestic as the Nile River, as mythical as the Sphinx and more awe-inspiring than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
A packed Cairo International Stadium – with Egyptians at full voice in the stands, the air filled with smoke from the flares that create a kaleidoscope of colours, lasers redolent of hundreds of snipers and the Pharaohs at full flight on the pitch – is a magical sight. It might have lost part of its mythical prowess in 2005, when seats were installed in the standing section that had allowed the stadium to accommodate 120 000 fanatics, but its 75 000 capacity still makes it Egypt’s greatest sight.
The Warriors of Zimbabwe not only have to tame the Pharaohs in the opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), they also have to deal with the expectant crowd that has turned Cairo International Stadium into a colosseum where visiting teams go to be slaughtered.
“We are not even looking at that,” Zimbabwean forward Knowledge Musona said in response to how he and his teammates will handle the reception the Warriors receive at the opening match of the continental showpiece. “Egypt is just a national team like Zimbabwe, although they have more Europe-based players and they are ranked higher than us. At the end of the day, it’s XI versus XI, we are playing the same ball. It’s all about who is good on the day.
“In football, you no longer have big guns and minnows. We are going to go there and fight, in each and every game, not just against Egypt because they are the hosts. Of course they are favourites, and we like to be the underdogs, but that motivates us even more. We need to surprise the people who will be overlooking us.”
‘Is life this cheap?’
The cheers from Egyptians will be a few decibels louder than usual, because this Afcon is an opportunity for the country to seal football’s return to normality from turbulence. The Arab Spring – that led to the overthrowing of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, among others in the Maghreb region – shook Egypt to the core, affecting every sphere of life from tourism to the country’s economy and even its football, especially the much feared Pharaohs.
Football and politics collided in the Port Said Stadium disaster in 2012 that left 74 fans dead and hundreds injured during a riot in Al-Ahly’s clash with Al-Masry. That disaster had a ripple effect on the Pharaohs, who lost their aura of invincibility as the most successful team on the continent. After winning the Afcon three times in a row between 2006, when they hosted it, and 2010, Egypt sank so low that they failed to qualify for the continent’s premier competition for three successive editions (2012, 2013 and 2015).
The Port Said Stadium disaster was viewed as retaliation by the authorities on Al-Ahly’s Ultras Ahlawy fan group, who played a key role in the protests at Tahrir Square. Police are said to have stood still and simply watched as Al-Ahly fans were attacked and stabbed to death. Some eyewitnesses said that the police even refused to open the gates, “caging” Al-Ahly fans in a stadium that turned into an abattoir.
Egyptian great and Al-Ahly god, Mohamed Aboutrika, quit football after the attack. He told the club’s television station, “People here are dying and no one is doing a thing. It’s like a war. Is life this cheap?”
The authorities had no choice but to suspend domestic football. When that suspension was lifted, clubs played domestic football behind closed doors with only a handful of fans allowed for international competitions. The stampede in the Zamalek versus ENPPI match in 2015, which resulted in 20 deaths, forced the authorities to slow down their pace in allowing fans back.
When fans eventually returned in 2016, Egypt’s Pharaohs almost reclaimed their throne. They lost in the final of the 2017 Afcon, their first participation in seven years. The following year, they were one of five nations that represented Africa at the Fifa World Cup in Russia. This year, in their Afcon, it is about taking back what is rightfully theirs, the Afcon trophy they have won seven times, more than any other side on the continent.
Zimbabwe’s fighting spirit
The Warriors could spoil the party, though – despite going on strike on the eve of this match. It is alleged that the players are unhappy about the Zimbabwean Football Association’s (Zifa) handling of their appearance fees and allowances, with claims that Zifa lied to the government about the payments. The players boycotted their last training session at Cairo International Stadium on Thursday night, even threatening to not honour the fixture. But the impasse was eventually resolved, which means Zimbabwe will grace Egypt’s iconic venue.
Zimbabwe’s Afcon squad is arguably one of the most talented this country has sent to the Nations Cup. Peter Ndlovu’s generation will always be the benchmark for Zimbabwean football excellence, but Musona and company would write their names in the history books should they take the country to the last 16 for the first time in their history.
“We have quality in Zimbabwe, it’s just that we don’t have the resources,” Musona said at the Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Durban. The Warriors used the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa) Cup as preparation for Afcon because they couldn’t afford to organise a lot of high-profile friendlies.
“If we had resources like South Africa, I am sure that we would be more successful and better ranked as a nation. We cannot do anything about that [lack of resources]. Football in Zimbabwe doesn’t pay a lot. Many people are fighting to go outside the country. That’s the drive.
“We know our problems at home, that’s why we go out there and fight as we look for better jobs and better teams to play for, so that we can take care of ourselves and our families. You see that many Zimbabweans are here in South Africa, many more want to come but they can’t get a chance. That’s what keeps us going as Zimbabweans. We are always hustling to have a better life. So when we play for the national team, the desire is not only to do well for us but also for our people. To give them some joy.”
The overthrowing of former president Robert Mugabe in a coup that wasn’t a coup gave Zimbabweans joy and the hope of a brighter tomorrow. But President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s deputy, has brought a false new dawn.
Musona and company have to prove that their new dawn is real by doing better than they did in the 2017 Afcon, which was their first appearance after an 11-year absence. Musona’s partnership with midfielder Khama Billiat will be key in achieving that in a group in which Zimbabwe are not only up against the hosts but also have to deal with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“He knows what I want when I am on the field. He knows where to go to connect with me. I know how he moves,” Musona said as he explained his telepathic connection with Billiat.
“The understanding started when we were at the academy, even if we don’t play together for a long time, he knows my qualities and I know his. It’s easy to click and pick up where we left things when we come to the national team. We communicate well. I know how he thinks and he knows how I think. When you have players like that, it’s easy to play together because you are in sync.”
Brotherhood at an early age
Musona and Billiat almost took their partnership from the Aces Youth Star Academy to Kaizer Chiefs. Amakhosi were told of two bright stars in Zimbabwe. Premier Soccer League veteran and fellow Zimbabwean Tinashe Nengomasha even vouched for the pair, especially Billiat.
But Chiefs only signed Musona, who went on to be a “Smiling Assassin” at Chiefs and earn a contract in Germany with 1899 Hoffenheim. Billiat made a long trek to Amakhosi, starting at Ajax Cape Town, then moving to Mamelodi Sundowns where he won the 2016 CAF Champions League in Egypt and eventually Naturena, where he had an underwhelming first season according to his high standards. Musona speaks about the pain of their separation with a lump in his throat.
“It was a sad moment, but he was happy for me that I was going outside,” Musona said. “I remember very well when he said that I will see you soon in South Africa. We reunited in South Africa, it’s just that we were playing for different teams. I knew that he would eventually get here because he is a good player. You can see what he has achieved. I am happy for him.
“I wanted him to leave South Africa and play in Europe, but sometimes there are things that are out of your control as a player and it’s not entirely your fault. It could be that the people representing you are not good enough or it’s your choice to be where you are playing at the moment. I am happy for him. He is playing for a big team now. I wish him all the best because he deserves to play in Europe.”
Musona’s time in Europe hasn’t been all rosy. He only played one full league match in the 2018-19 season for Anderlecht in the Belgian Pro League before he was sent on loan to fellow Belgian side, Lokeren. He scored one goal in six matches, not nearly enough to help Lokeren avoid relegation. KV Oostende, in Belgium, remains his best spell in Europe, scoring 41 goals in 112 matches. He has had to knuckle down and fight for his position since moving to Europe in 2011.
“That’s what football is all about, you have to fight,” he said. “There is nothing that comes easy, especially when you aren’t in your home country. When you are from outside, and you are from Africa, you have to fight when you are in Europe because there it is about consistency.
“Also, it is about making the most of the chance you get to play. You can’t take for granted the chance that you get to play. It’s unfortunate that we might meet coaches who don’t like us, and in some instances, we work with coaches who like us. It’s all about knowing where you are going. The most important thing is to go to a club where you feel that they want you and they want you to play for sure. Sometimes we make mistakes as players, but you just have to fight.”
Musona versus Salah
Zimbabwe’s fighting spirit will be on show against a Pharaohs team led by their biggest star, Mohamed Salah, who has already conquered one continent with his English club, Liverpool. The cult status that Salah enjoys in Liverpool is something that Musona only dreams about. He is still making a name for himself in Europe.
A good showing at the Nations Cup will go a long way in his quest to cement more respect at Anderlecht. But a fight – whether against Egypt in their own backyard or to continue his stay in Europe – doesn’t faze Musona. He thrives under such conditions, which is why he has resisted the temptation to return home even though he left as a youngster.
“It’s because I knew what I wanted. I wanted to play in Europe. I told myself that I want to play here in South Africa [and use that as a springboard to go to Europe],” the 29-year-old said. “It was difficult at first, in a new environment. It’s all about the mentality and the goals that you want to achieve. If you focus on what you want, and you fight for it, you become stronger mentally, which makes it easier for you to adjust and focus on what you are there for. That’s what I did for myself and things fell into place.
“I fought for every moment to play. I am still fighting now because I haven’t enjoyed my time in Europe that much. I am happy though. I still want to play, so we will see what happens in the future, if I have to come back home or come back to South Africa. But for now, I have to fight and achieve what I want in Europe.”