FROM ARABIAN NIGHTS INTO THE AFRICAN SUN: FIFA Arab Cup Offers North African Sides AFCON Head-Start
The Arab Cup, in its previous guises, had never really been particularly happy hunting grounds for the African sides eligible to compete.
The trophy count stands at just one apiece for Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, the latter being the most recent champions (2012). That’s an altogether meagre return for the North African participants, even if the competition has only ever had two other champions — Saudi Arabia, twice kings, and four-time winners Iraq — in its previous nine editions.
Nine years without the organisation of an Arab Cup tournament had denied any of those sides the chance to add to their respective tallies, but all that will change in a matter of hours when the latest edition — in the competition’s newest incarnation, also its most glamorous yet — climaxes.
With the revived Arab Cup now tied firmly to FIFA’s mast — doubling as a test run for next year’s World Cup, almost like the Confederations Cup but starring a largely B-list cast — the competition has been absolutely buzzing since it kicked off at the end of November in glitzy Qatar (even if it’s still not quite everyone’s cup of tea).
The final, which comes off on Saturday, would be between Algeria, desirous of a maiden title, and a Tunisia side chasing the country’s first Arab Cup triumph since winning the inaugural edition 58 years ago. It could easily, though, have been a contest between Algeria and still another neighbour, 1992 champions Egypt, but Tunisia edged the Pharaohs by the narrow margin of a last-gasp own goal in one of the two semi-finals earlier in the week.
It doesn’t matter so much which African team got to the final, or which one even wins it, however. They’re all already winners — and that also goes for Morocco, the other African side to progress past the first round — in view of the fact that the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) commences in less than a month.
All four teams, remember, are among the favourites to win the AFCON, with Algeria — the holders, on a run of unbeaten games that is not far from matching Italy’s recently-established world-record sequence — arguably the team to beat.
The Arab Cup presents the respective managers with a chance to assess some of the players at their disposal, a number of whom are likely to make the final cut for the AFCON, as well as test the sharpness of their own wits.
On the big platforms of international football, where the competition is ever so keen, every advantage to be had counts. And there is very much an advantage for the North African powers to secure in Qatar, leaving the other heavyweights realistically hopeful of AFCON success with some ground to make up even before a ball is set rolling in Cameroon.
It’s a head-start that has seen Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco hit the ground running, and they wouldn’t let slip the opportunity to find some momentum. By the time January comes around, they should have built up a full head of steam, with the winner of the Arab Cup tomorrow set to pull up at the AFCON with a tank just that bit more full and a spring in their step.