As Africa's biggest stars take to the pitches of Egypt for the continent's flagship international football competition, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), millions are expected to tune in to watch Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and many of Africa's other leading sons perform way too many step-overs from Cairo to Suez, as they bid to lead their nations to victory.
AFCON is a festival of football and colourful fans singing and dancing, clad in garish attire. But while millions are hopeful for a tournament that excites and delivers, one man, perhaps more than most, needs this tournament to run smoothly. That man is Ahmad Ahmad, the 59-year-old chief of African football's governing body, the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
Ahmad became CAF president in 2017 after deposing Issa Hayatou, the body's leader of 29 years. So how did a little known football administrator and former Madagascar minister of fisheries topple Hayatou, who had by then become African football's biggest figure? It was the first CAF election post a 2015 FBI pre-dawn raid in Zurich that turned football on its head after several officials were caught in a web of deceit and corruption. Hayatou himself was unscathed and even rose to become acting FIFA head when Sepp Blatter stepped down, but the atmosphere was ripe for change. Ahmad became the face of a new era as Hayatou, part of the established order, was swept out.
Ahmad was ambitious, and wasted no time making the most controversial decision of his short tenure – AFCON was being moved to a summer start, away from the traditional January/February dates that enraged many European clubs as they lost key players right in the middle of the season. In truth, the decision was a long time coming, particularly in the wake of the 2017 tournament when more than 17 players – most notably Liverpool and Cameroon's Joel Matip – chose club over country and stayed away. Yet it's hard to imagine Hayatou, who got a kick from lording it over European clubs in the face of their lobbying and subtle threats, ratifying such a radical decision. For Ahmad, it was a boon to his modernist credentials, and so for the first time in its 62-year history, Africa's most important football competition will be played in the summer.
It’s easy to be a reformer from the outside looking in, without the constraints of a bureaucratic system that has been in place for years, political challengers make sweeping promises and quick fixes. But it never takes too long before they all succumb to the system. Time, as always, comes for everyone and the house always wins.
Ahmad's tenure at CAF has followed a similar path. He has been dogged by several allegations in the past year, some more serious than others. He has been accused of overspending on new cars at CAF's Cairo headquarters, making $20,000 payments into the private bank accounts of Africa's football leaders, and was detained and questioned by Parisian authorities in early June over a contractual agreement with a company linked to a close ally. He was released without charge. Ahmad has also been questioned over sexual harassment allegations in London and Morocco, but denies all charges and has called the allegations "smears on my character". All the allegations are contained in a dossier sent to FIFA's ethics committee by Amr Fahmy, CAF's former general secretary, who was sacked without explanation after accusing his boss of taking bribes.
With the stakes for CAF now higher than ever, Ahmad will hope a return to Egypt – which last hosted in 2006 – boosts the global profile of a tournament that has been flagging in recent years. Egypt is a football-mad country that's easily accessible and has an infrastructure ready to host a proper competition.
Yet, Egypt was only picked in January after Cameroon was stripped of the hosting rights due to their inability to meet scheduled delivery times of stadiums amid the ongoing conflict between English-speaking separatists and government forces. The decision to increase the number of participating teams from 16 to 24 meant Cameroon stood no chance of meeting stipulated deadlines. CAF was adamant in the weeks leading up to its final decision, but was forced to face the reality last November. This marks the fourth time in succession that CAF has been left scrambling for new hosts for its premier competition.
Trouble began when Libya and South Africa were chosen as hosts of the 2013 and 2017 editions respectively. But with political turmoil and violence in a post-Gaddafi world rendering Libya unfit, both countries swapped places and South Africa hosted in 2013. Perhaps CAF was fuelled by incurable optimism that Libya would be a viable option just four years later, but it came as no surprise when Gabon had to step up to host. CAF's decision, even at the time, was baffling. With the benefit of hindsight, it looks wilfully naive. Then, in late 2014, with the Ebola epidemic at its peak, Morocco pulled out of staging the 2015 competition at the last minute. CAF was rescued by Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich nation ruled by a president who has been in power since 1979 and has a reputation for using sports and other white elephant projects to launder his reputation.
CAF, like other football organisations the world over, is all too happy getting in bed with dictators with questionable human rights records, provided they fund the largesse. So with the last two tournaments held in petrol states with minimal interest in the game, it is in CAF’s best interests that full houses and raucous atmospheres are all but guaranteed in Egypt. But there are questions to be asked of a summer tournament in a country where temperatures could potentially reach 40°C and have a knock-on effect on player welfare.
Amid all this, it's easy to forget an actual sporting competition is at hand. There are competition bows for minnows Mauritania, Madagascar and Saido Berahino's Burundi, and a welcome return for Nigeria and South Africa, who provide most of the television audience in sub-Saharan Africa. There have been debates about the quality on show in a 24-team tournament, but the number of new teams in attendance should be celebrated as showing what can happen when the game develops in lesser-known corners of the continent.
No favourites jump out, but the usual suspects of Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal are all present. Defending champions Cameroon, under the tutelage of Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf, should have a say in the latter stages, and Mohamed Salah will carry the hopes of the host nation, which lost the 2017 final. Morocco will hope Herve Renard – he of the immaculate white shirt and chiselled good looks – works his magic to win the competition with a third different country. There are a number of Premier League faces to root for: Wilfried Zaha with Cote d’Ivoire, Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez and a gamut of other familiar names who bring a global appeal to the competition.
Football has felt almost like an afterthought in the buildup to the tournament – but the beautiful game has a way of overshadowing controversy once the fun begins. Ahmad and his CAF cohorts will surely hope that is the case when the tournament kicks off later today. Anything short would add to their already growing list of worries.