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Local League Football returns to Sierra Leone

Football was suspended due to the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014.

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Tunisia Esperance's striker Mickael Eneramo (2nd R) vies with Sierra Leone East End Lions' - AFP

Sierra Leonean football fans have welcomed the return of league football to the country after a four-and-a-half-year absence.

Thousands of fans arrived several hours before kick-off to see the country’s two best supported teams, Mighty Blackpool and East End Lions, play each other despite Sierra Leone’s suspension by world football’s governing body FIFA.

Football was suspended due to the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 and further wrangles within the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) meant the league was unable to resume.

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Ivory Coast hope on Nicolas Pepe to banish memories of disastrous AFCON outing

The 2015 champions were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco to make an undignified exit from Gabon after the first round.

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Ivory Coast coach Ibrahim Kamara sees Nicolas Pepe as one of the young stars who can banish the memories of a disastrous Africa Cup of Nations title defence two years ago. The 2015 champions were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco to make an undignified exit from Gabon after the first round.

Kamara hopes Pepe, the 22-goal second highest French Ligue 1 scorer last season behind superstar Kylian Mbappe, can ensure there is no repeat of that debacle in Egypt. “We are building a team to match the great ones of the past and hope players like Nicolas can take us a long way in Egypt,” said Kamara.

Ivory Coast is in Group D with South Africa – who they face in Cairo on Monday – Morocco and Namibia, a section widely regarded as the toughest of the six to qualify from. Here is a preview of the three-match Monday schedule, which also includes a Group E double-header in Suez involving Angola, Mali, debutants Mauritania and Tunisia.

Ivory Coast v South Africa – these countries resume a rivalry 21 years after drawing 1-1 in Burkina Faso, and a similar outcome at the Al Salam Stadium would not be surprising as neither side dare lose. “As much as every team wants to win its first tournament match, it is crucial not to lose because it puts you on the back foot immediately,” says South Africa coach Stuart Baxter.

While Ivory Coast has a potential matchwinner in Pepe from Ligue 1 runners-up Lille, South Africa hope Percy Tau can rise to the occasion after a season in the Belgian second division. The slightly-built attacker was signed by Premier League outfit Brighton last season, lent to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium, and his brace against Libya ensured qualification for Egypt.

South Africa had a puzzling build-up with Baxter rejecting a chance to play in a regional championship, then complaining that he had only one warm-up match, a draw against Ghana.

Angola v Tunisia – This is another match that brings together teams for only the second time in the Cup of Nations, with a goalless draw 11 years ago in Ghana ensuring both of quarter-finals places. It will be a record-extending 14th straight appearance at the tournament by the Tunisians, who failed to go beyond the group stage only four times.

“Our first target is the quarter-finals and after that, we shall see,” says cautious Tunisia coach and 19080s France star Alain Giresse. “Tunisia has been serious contenders in many Cup of Nations and my dream is to take them back to the top,” he said.

Angola is a workmanlike side whose star is a wide attacker from Egyptian giants Al Ahly nicknamed Geraldo – real name Hermenegildo da Costa Paulo Bartolomeu.

Mali v Mauritania – Mali created several negative pre-tournament headlines with FIFA threatening to ban the country from the Cup of Nations over squabbling among officials.

Mohamed Magassouba then took four days longer than any of the other 23 coaches to name his squad, without offering an explanation.

Such chaotic build-ups can build team unity or destroy it as Mali seek to regain a reputation for punching well above their weight in the African showpiece.  “We have to do better than in the last two tournaments,” stressed defender Hamari Traore, referring to first-round exits in 2015 and 2017 without winning even one match.

Long-time pushovers Mauritania has improved steadily under French coach Corentin Martins, whose aim in Egypt is simply to “be competitive and achieve some victories”.

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AFCON 2019 begins with narrow victory for Egypt

Egypt started their bid for a record-extending eighth Africa Cup of Nations trophy with a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe

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AFCON 2019 begins with narrow victory for Egypt
AFCON 2019 opening ceremony - Photo credit: CAF Online

The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations kicked off in grand style with a colourful opening ceremony followed by the opening match between the hosts, Egypt, and Zimbabwe.

In keeping with April’s spectacular tournament draw under the gaze of the Sphinx, the 30-minute opening ceremony featured a backdrop of pyramids and statues from Egyptian mythology mixed with elegant dancers that set the stage for a fireworks display to illuminate the ground.

AFCON 2019 begins with narrow victory for Egypt
Photo Credit: CAF

The arrival of the Egyptian players for the warm-up induced a deafening roar from the capacity 75,000-crowd, who predictably reserved the loudest reception for Salah as his name was read out among the starting line-ups. 

Egypt started their bid for a record-extending eighth Africa Cup of Nations trophy on Friday with a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe in Cairo in a tournament expanded to 24 teams and played in June and July for the first time.

With the temperature having dipped to a more palatable 27 Celsius (81 Fahrenheit) by the start, Egypt – the tournament favourites and 2017 runners-up – immediately looked threatening, with Salah orchestrating much of the attack as he swung in a pair of teasing crosses, the second forcing Edmore Sibanda to tip over a looping Marwan Mohsen header.  

Salah was again involved 10 minutes later, intricately exchanging passes on the edge of the Zimbabwe box to carve out a chance for Abdallah Elsaid, whose shot was palmed away by Sibanda before Trezeguet lashed over the rebound.

As Zimbabwe struggled to develop any sort of rhythm with outstanding midfielder Khama Billiat contained, Salah again had a boisterous, largely red-clad crowd on their feet when he wriggled past his marker only to shoot over from a difficult angle.

AFCON 2019 begins with narrow victory for Egypt
Zimbabwe’s defender Divine Lunga (R) is marked by Egypt’s forward Mohamed Salah during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football match between Egypt and Zimbabwe at Cairo International Stadium on June 21, 2019. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

Liverpool star Salah, on a redemption mission with Egypt after injury derailed a miserable World Cup campaign last year, looked sharp although the hosts needed a 41st-minute goal by Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ Hassan to get off to a winning start in Group A.

Trezeguet rises to the occasion

A blocked attempt by Zimbabwe captain Knowledge Musona represented the southern Africans’ lone genuine attempt in the first half as a dominant Egypt eventually broke through just before the interval.

Zimbabwe’s efforts to play out from defence backfired and the talented Trezeguet, formerly of Anderlecht and now with Kasimpasa in Turkey, shifted the ball onto his right foot before sweeping clinically into the far corner.  

AFCON 2019 begins with narrow victory for Egypt
CAIRO, EGYPT – JUNE 21: Trezeguet (R) of Egypt in action during the opening football match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Group A match between Egypt and Zimbabwe at the Cairo International Stadium in Cairo, Egypt on June 21, 2019. Fared Kotb / Anadolu Agency

Trezeguet, who scored three times in five qualifiers for the event, was quickly sensing another when his curling 20-yard strike was flicked behind by a sprawling Sibanda early into the second half. 

The Zimbabwe goalkeeper felt the brunt of a crunching collision with Mohsen on the hour, producing a courageous stop to deny the forward after a clever first touch created the opportunity. 

Sibanda was again tested low to his right by a Salah effort on his weaker foot, with Egypt ‘keeper Mohamed El Shenawy finally called into action to handle a speculative Billiat drive just before the second of two mandated heat breaks on 70 minutes.

It appeared Salah’s moment was going to arrive in the final minutes but Elvis Chipezeze, on for the injured Sibanda, plunged low to his right, when substitute Amr Warda perhaps offered the forward a better option across the face of goal. 

Egyptian hearts were momentarily in mouths when an unmarked Evans Rusike rose to meet a cross but he was unable to keep his header down, allowing Egypt to emerge with an opening victory in their quest to win the competition for the fourth time as hosts in five editions.  

Assistant coach Hany Ramzy said: “These are the first three points in a long competition. The match was difficult, and maybe at some stages we made it hard on ourselves.”

Man of the match Mahmoud Alaa said after the victory: “I congratulate all the Egyptian people on the first win.”

AFCON 2019 begins with narrow victory for Egypt
Egypt’s defender Mahmoud Alaa (R) fights for the ball with Zimbabwe’s midfielder Ovidy Karuru during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football match between Egypt and Zimbabwe at Cairo International Stadium on June 21, 2019. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

The defender added: “We should be better in the upcoming matches. Our aim in this competition is to win the title.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda are the other teams in Group A and they meet Saturday at the same venue, while Nigeria begin their campaign against newcomers Burundi in Alexandria. 

Guinea meanwhile take on Madagascar, the second of three countries appearing in the event for the first time.

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Pharaohs coach confirms team’s readiness for AFCON 2019 opener

Egypt play Zimbabwe in the opening match of the tournament and have Salah as their talisman

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Pharaohs say ready for AFON 2019 opener | News Central TV
Egypt's coach Javier Aguirre (R) and Egypt's defender Ahmed Elmohamady (C) attend a press conference ahead of their opening match against Zimbabwe in the 2019 football Africa Cup of Nations (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

All eyes will be on Mohamed Salah today as the Egypt star looks to help the Africa Cup of Nations hosts launch their bid for a record-extending eighth title in style against Zimbabwe in the opening match of a tournament expanded to 24 teams for the first time.

After avenging last year’s Champions League anguish with Liverpool three weeks ago, Salah is now on a mission for redemption with the Pharaohs after injury wrecked his World Cup campaign in Russia — ruining Egypt’s return to the global showpiece after a 28-year absence.

Egypt tops the betting as favourites to lift the trophy in Cairo on July 19 and have won the competition as hosts three of the previous four times, with the last of those in 2006 sparking an unprecedented run of three successive triumphs.

Authorities are confident the infrastructure is in place to host the continent’s largest football contest, awarded to Egypt at just six months’ notice, and which kicks off against a backdrop of terror attacks and only days after the death of former Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.

Players will also have to contend with average temperatures of between 35 and 38 Celsius (95-100.4 Fahrenheit) following the decision to switch the tournament from its traditional January/February time slot to June/July to avoid European club-versus-country clashes.

Egypt coach, Javier Aguirre is confident of capturing a second international title, a decade on from leading his native Mexico to CONCACAF Gold Cup glory.

“We are the favourites to win the 2019 Africa Cup,” said the 60-year-old Aguirre, the first Mexican to guide the Egyptian national team.

“Egypt are playing at home, can count on passionate support and have Mohamed Salah, the best footballer in Africa.”

Salah has returned home after another stellar season with Liverpool, which he completed by scoring the first goal in a 2-0 Champions League final victory over Tottenham Hotspur.

His 22 English Premier League goals last season gave him share of the Golden Boot title with two fellow Africans, Senegalese Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon.

‘Tremendous support’ –

Aguirre says fears that his talisman may be jaded after a long season of Premier League and Champions League football are unfounded.

“Mohamed took a holiday after the Champions League final, did not play in our first warm-up match and only came on after half-time in the second,” he countered.

Egypt beat fellow qualifiers Tanzania and Guinea and what pleased Aguirre most was not the results, but the large number of scoring chances the Pharaohs created.

“We had about 20 chances to score against the Tanzanians and almost as many against the Guineans. That is very encouraging.”

Aguirre also dismissed the view that Egypt relies too heavily on Salah, saying: “We have selected 23 footballers who are totally committed to the cause of winning the Cup of Nations.

“It is impossible for one footballer to win a Cup of Nations on his own. Mohamed will receive tremendous support from his team-mates.

“All the players are mentally and physically ready and we look forward to beginning our campaign with a victory over Zimbabwe.”

The countries have met only once in a Cup of Nations with Egypt winning 2-1 in Tunisia 15 years ago and both teams were eliminated after the first round.

Zimbabwe coach and former captain, Sunday Chidzambwa was keeping his thoughts to himself ahead of the tournament opener.

But captain and forward, Knowledge Musona, who plays in Belgium, stressed that they must not become obsessed by Salah, despite the huge threat he poses.

“We must not just stop Salah, we must stop all the Egyptians. If we concentrate only on one, others will destroy us,” he warned. 

“We are not here to talk — we are here to play football. We are in Egypt to achieve success and make every Zimbabwean proud of us.

The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda are the other teams in Group A and they meet Saturday at the same venue as the opening match.

Group winners and runners-up qualify for the knockout second round along with the best four of the six third-place finishers.

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