The wait is finally over, and the stage is set for the start. The third edition of U-23 Africa Cup of Nations kicks off this Friday when hosts Egypt lock horns with Mali at the Cairo International Stadium. It is a replay of their 2015 clash in M’bour, Senegal when Mali triumphed 1-0.
Will they be able to get a repeat before the usual very vocal Egyptian crowd?
The duel is the curtain raiser for the final qualifying phase for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games’ men football event. Three top finishers among the eight finalists will get the tickets to Tokyo.
The other six contesting teams are defending champions, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, Zambia, Cameroon and Ghana.
The Olympic Pharaohs as Egypt are nicknamed are seeking their 12th appearance in the Olympic Games, an African record.
Egypt’s first appearance in the Olympics football tournament dates back to a full century ago, in Antwerp 1920. The Pharaohs finished fourth twice, in Amsterdam 1928 and Tokyo 1964.
Guided by ex-player and senior national team coach Shawky Gharib, Egypt enters the tournament with a squad fully based on domestic players.
With the likes of skipper Ramadan Sobhy, strikers Mostafa Mohamed and Salah Mohsen who featured for senior team, and with the expected support from the stands, expectations are high on the shoulders of Gharib’s boys.
On the other hand, Mali had just one previous appearance in the Olympics, in Athens 2004 bowing out from the quarterfinals. Les Aigles are hoping for an Olympic return with a generation mainly based on the class of 2015 who finished as runner ups in the U-17 FIFA World Cup in Chile.
Fanyéri Diarra hopes to lead Mali to the Olympic scene yet again 16 years after their debut, as Les Aigles dream of a podium finish in Egypt. He will have the likes of Turkey based forward Ali Malle and Al Ahly midfielder Aliou Dieng to rely on.