Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
WHEN the Warriors open the 2019 AFCON finals on June 21, they will come face-to-face with African football royalty on a special day when their inspirational skipper, Knowledge Musona, will turn 29.
For some, it’s probably the biggest mismatch, since Cote d’Ivoire thrashed Ethiopia 6-1 at the ’70 AFCON finals in Sudan, and Guinea hammered Botswana by a similar scoreline at the 2012 Nations Cup finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
But, for Musona, the day would be a reminder of when his life journey started, amid humble surroundings in Norton, before his stunning transformation into the best Warrior since King Peter Ndlovu vacated the throne.
When it comes to this tournament, there is no team with a bigger profile than the Pharaohs – record seven-times Nations Cup winners, first champions back in 1957, first team to defend the crown in 1959, first team to win it three times in a row between 2006 and 2010.
The team, whose legendary midfielder Ahmed Hassan is the only player to have featured in the AFCON final four times – 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010 – and, won on all occasions.
The nation that set a record for attendance figures at an AFCON match when 100 000 fans converged at the Cairo International Stadium to watch the 1986 final between Egypt and Cameroon.
The Pharaohs won 5-4 on penalties after a goalless draw. The team which is a member of an elite group of just three sides, including Ghana in 1965 and Algeria in 1990, to have won the title after winning all their matches at the tournament.
The Pharaohs achieved that feat in 2010 in Angola. The same Pharaohs, whose player Raafat scored the first goal in AFCON finals history in February 1957 in Khartoum by converting a 21st minute penalty while another of their players, Ayman Mansour, holds the record for the fastest goal at the tournament.
He struck against Gabon after just 23 seconds in 1994 in Tunisia.
The Egyptians also hold the record for the most goals in a single AFCON finals match when they beat Nigeria 6-3 at the 1963 Nations Cup finals in Ghana.
The Warriors’3-5 defeat by Cameroon is joint second, together with the 4-4 draw between Burkina Faso and the DRC in Burkina Faso in 1998, and the 4-4 draw between Angola and Mali in Luanda in 2010.
The Pharaohs are the only country to feature in nine finals, in 23 editions of the tournament, with seven wins and from February 3, 2004 in Monastir, Tunisia, a goalless draw against Cameroon, to January 31, 2010 in Luanda when they beat Ghana 1-0 in the final, they went 19 matches without defeat.
That run included 15 wins and four draws, including at home in the final of the AFCON in 2006, before they won the penalty shootout lottery 4-2 against Cote d’Ivoire.
They have the most appearances at the Nations Cup finals, 23, most matches played, 97, most wins 54, most goals scored 159.
In the 16-team tournament, which will be replaced by a 24-team tourney this year, Egypt were the only team to win all six matches at the AFCON finals when they did it in Angola nine years ago.
They have longevity, when it comes to their players, and Hossam Hassan won his first AFCON finals in 1986 and, 20 years later in 2006, won another Nations Cup gold medal.
They also produce some great coaches and Hassan Shehata remains the only one to have guided a team, the Pharaohs, to three titles in a row between 2006 and 2010 while Mahmoud El Gohary and Steve Keshi are the only two people to have won the tournament both as a player and coach.
Should Warriors coach Sunday Chidzambwa somehow defy what appear to be insurmountable odds and guide his team to glory at the AFCON finals, he will complete an All-Star team of the 11 African coaches who have guided their teams, on 15 occasions, to success in the tournament.
For the Egyptians, this year’s AFCON finals returns to their country in the year they are marking 60 years since they first hosted, and won it, in 1959.
And, for the Warriors, it’s a return to the place where they featured in their second Nations Cup finals in 2006 and came very close to making it past the group stages, for the first time, in their history.
The opening match against the Pharaohs on June 21 will be the first time the two teams have met at the Cairo International Stadium since the ill-tempered ’94 World Cup qualifier on February 28, 1983, ended with the hosts winning 2-1 only for FIFA to annul the result and force a replay.
Subsequent matches between the two nations, including a 2014 World Cup qualifier which Egypt won 2-1 after being handed a late penalty, have been played in Alexandria.
The Cairo showdown on June 21 will also come in the month when this country will be marking the 90th anniversary of the first appearance, by footballers from here, in an international football match.
In June 1929, this country fielded its first national team in two matches against the touring English national amateur team and lost the first match 0-4 before the visitors also won the second game 6-1.
That English side arrived here on a roll after thrashing France 15-0, Germany 9-0 and Belgium 12-2.
Exactly 40 years after those baby steps in international football, this country also featured in its first World Cup qualifiers and lost to Australia in 1969 in Mozambique.
And, 10 years later, Shacky Tauro was named Soccer Star of the Year and, in the 1984 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup, he would score one of the two goals as Zimbabwe won its first silverware in football.
Domestic football has never forgotten its ‘’Mr Goals,’’ and if the Warriors do well against the Pharaohs on June 21, they will certainly honour his memory given the match will come just four days after the country marks a decade since his death.
Born on June 28, 1959, he died on June 19, 2009 just nine days before turning 50.
There is something that binds domestic football and the year that ends with a nine.
In 1989, the footballer widely regarded as the finest to wear the Warriors jersey, Peter Ndlovu, announced his arrival by helping Mzilikazi win the Copa Coca-Cola tournament.
The following season, he was named Soccer Star of the Year and his highly-successful journey with the Warriors started and, there has never been anyone like him since.
Of course, the man who will skipper the Warriors on June 21, on the day he turns 29, has come close in that golden shirt.