The football has been thrilling, so why hasn't Egypt embraced the Africa Cup of Nations?
CAIRO -- At any other time, it might have been the moment that held the whole world's attention. In the final minute of Algeria's Africa Cup of Nations semifinal against Nigeria in Cairo, Riyad Mahrez stood over a free-kick 22 yards out, puffed out his cheeks, stepped back and prepared to make history...
The Manchester City forward whipped a vicious shot around the wall and into the top corner, giving his country a first appearance in the final since 1990 and sending the Algeria fans, many of whom had used every mode of transport imaginable to make it to the game, wild. Nigeria had no time to even restart the game.
It was outstanding drama; genuine knife-edge football won by an unforgettable intervention by a top Premier League player. Yet, even during a day when tennis (Wimbledon men's final), cricket (World Cup men's final) and other events (F1 grand prix) understandably jostled for attention, there was a sense Mahrez's bolt from the blue should have travelled further.
The knockout stages of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations have contained heart-stopping theatre, but the awkward question is: how many people really know about it?
The fact certainly seemed to escape most people in Cairo, a city of 20 million people who largely ignored Sunday's semifinals, despite Egypt only having been awarded the hosting rights six months ago. Official attendances are yet to be released but 30 June Stadium, where Senegal prevailed in their own gripping semifinal tussle with Tunisia via Dylan Bronn's extra-time own goal, was clearly 25% full at best; Cairo International Stadium -- the 70,000 capacity venue where Mahrez worked his magic -- was no more crowded despite the best efforts of those passionate Algerians.
It would have taken some supreme sleight of hand for the TV camera operators to hide the banks of empty seats and, for a tournament that is struggling to take a foothold in the news cycle, it was not a good look.
Friday night's final between Senegal and Algeria has all the ingredients to be a classic. Algeria, whose 10,000 fans from the semifinal will be bolstered by many more (some of whom may even charter boats across the Mediterranean Sea), may feel as if they are playing at home. But they will need the Egyptian public to help create an atmosphere -- to make this appear like an occasion worth watching to the wider world. On present evidence the Local Organising Committee (LOC) faces a battle to fill the ground.
Nobody from the LOC was available for comment to ESPN on Monday morning but Egyptians have, throughout the past month, provided numerous anecdotal reasons for their reluctance to attend games.
Perhaps the most obvious is, of course, that their national team flopped in the round of 16, buckling under the pressure and falling to a limp defeat against an unremarkable South Africa side. Many fans had bought quarterfinal tickets but the majority stayed at home when Bafana Bafana, not Mohamed Salah and company, faced Nigeria.
But the gripes have been more widespread. Fans don't casually attend games outside those of their own nation. Travel around Africa is also expensive and difficult, making large visiting contingents the exception rather than the norm.
Any Egyptians who would have fancied taking in a game or two have faced battles many feel are insurmountable. Tickets for the final begin at $30; semifinal tickets began at $18. But the average monthly salary in the country is only around $133 and it is a stretch to ask ordinary, working people to part with that kind of cash.
Prices earlier in the knockout stage began at $12; better, but still requiring deep pockets. "The prices are far bigger than a typical Egyptian would pay to attend a football game, especially one not involving the national team," Fady Ashraf, a prominent local journalist tells ESPN FC. "It'd be a big, big chunk of money for them and it's the main reason for the low crowds."
Holding both semifinals on the same evening, at stadia 10km apart -- Algeria's match beginning 40 minutes after Senegal vs. Tunisia -- was hardly conducive to allowing supporters to binge on football either. Journalists looking to cover both games found that, at best, they were forced to miss the first half-hour of Algeria vs. Nigeria. If the crowds outside either stadium had been bigger then the feat would have been impossible -- and, even if fans had tried to dash between the two, the regimen of security checks required outside the second fixture would have kept them queuing outside throughout.
Then there is the Fan ID system, which is designed to ensure tickets are not touted and do not fall into the hands of troublemakers. It provides a series of hurdles completely unsuited to football in Africa, where sophisticated ticketing systems are rare, and entails a degree of bureaucracy and box-checking that puts off all bar the most dedicated or web-literate.
"Many people have dealt with it but there has also been a degree of laziness that has put people off the process," Ashraf says. Objections have also been raised to the scale of personal detail required for supporters to sign up, in a country whose state feels omnipresent.
Speak to Egyptians on the street and the theories are endless: a common, and compelling, one is that the authorities would rather stadiums remained virtually empty than risk filling them with Ultras, given the football scene's tragic recent past. The scars of the Port Said tragedy in 2012 still run deep. Perhaps it is better, after all, to make sure the tournament runs smoothly even if the cost is a clutch of near-vacant stadia.
The only certainty is that the competition itself suffers. With the Women's World Cup, Copa America and Gold Cup now over, the AFCON final will have little competition in the global calendar and, for the first time this summer, African football has an opportunity to showcase itself to the planet with little distraction.
It could do with the boost. If the decisive set of heroics from Mahrez, or perhaps Liverpool's Sadio Mane, on Friday take place to a packed house then perhaps the Cup of Nations will finish on the thrilling note it deserves.