Cup holders Nigeria will battle Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia and South Africa at the group stage of the 3rd U23 Africa Cup of Nations taking place in Egypt next month, following the draw held in Alexandria on Wednesday night. All Group B matches will hold at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo – one of the venues for last summer’s 32nd Africa Cup of Nations finals.
Host nation Egypt will be up against Ghana, Cameroon and Mali in a hard-as-nails Group A with matches at the Cairo International Stadium.
A simple but elegant ceremony, with the Montaza Palace at the foreground and the Mediterranean Sea at the background, and rocked by occasional interventions of firecrackers over the sea, was compered by former Egyptian international Ahmed Hosny (now a movie star) and model Lama Gebreil.
Egypt’s Minister for Youth and Sports, Dr. Ashraf Sobhy; CAF Executive Committee Member Ahmed Yahya; Members of the Normalization Committee of the Egyptian FA; Members of the local organizing committee for the U23 AFCON; Egyptian legends Mohamed Barakat and Ahmed Fathi and; representatives of the qualified nations witnessed the event in the 127 –year old Montaza grounds, built by King Farouk, before Gamal Abdel Nasser led a revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and established constitutional rule.
The draw was conducted by CAF’s Director of Competitions, Samson Adamu who kept it simple yet sophisticated, and former Egyptian international Emad Meteab.
Cup holders Nigeria will play their first game against Cote d’Ivoire, before further matches against Zambia and South Africa in the group stage. Only the top three teams at the tournament will qualify to represent Africa at the men’s football tournament of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Coach of South Africa, David Notone, said in an interview: “The truth is that whatever group you fall into would always be tough. We have eight very strong teams here and any team could have fallen anywhere, except Egypt and Nigeria that headed the groups.
“I call Group B a pool of derbies, with two West African teams and two Southern African teams. Group A is the pool of death, no doubt about it. It is going to be fight-to-finish in both groups.”
Former Ghanaian international midfielder Ibrahim Tanko, who is coach of Ghana and whose team shocked bookmakers by defeating Algeria away after both teams drew 1-1 in Ghana in the final qualifying round, said: “Everyone is saying it is tough, but I think it is impressive. This simply means that you have to prepare very hard, play each match like the final and take your chances.
“Any team having illusions of recovering after a false start will be sorely disappointed. I think we are going to have tough, spectacular games all the way in the tournament.”