Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
THE Warriors have probably never had a more secure base on their foreign adventures – a fortified military hotel for their accommodation, right in the heart of one of Cairo’s most affluent neighbourhoods which also houses the headquarters of the powerful Egyptian military.
The Heliopolis neighbourhood also provides a home for the regional headquarters of the World Health Organisation and the Red Crescent Society.
It’s also a popular home to Egyptian celebrities, including some of the country’s football stars, while wealthy families and a number of politicians have also set base in the area which, today, has a population of more than 150 000.
Maybe, that explains why Luna Park, the continent’s first amusement park, was erected in this neighbourhood in 1911 before the grounds were turned into a field hospital as World War 1 exploded.
The residence of former Egyptian President, Hosny Mubarak, is also found in this neighbourhood.
The deeply religious members of the Warriors have certainly not been feeling out of place because, in addition to the 16 major mosques in the neighbourhood, there is also the Saint Mark’s Church and Saint George’s Church while there is also a Jewish synagogue in the area.
It’s a remarkable expression of the religious tolerance that is found in the area where the Warriors have chosen to have their base before they move into the hotel CAF allocated to them, the Meridien, on Monday.
This is the neighbourhood where you also find the Cairo Military Academy Stadium, which this year celebrates 30 years since its doors were opened to the public, and sits just a stone’s throw from where the Warriors have been based since they arrived here in the early hours of Monday.
The 28 500 capacity stadium was used by the two Cairo giants – Al Ahly and Zamalek – for their home matches back in the days when the Cairo International Stadium, where the Warriors 2019 AFCON finals journey will begin with a battle against the Pharaohs next Friday, was being refurbished.
The distance between where the Warriors currently reside, adjacent the Cairo Military Academy Stadium, and where their real business here will start next week, the Cairo International Stadium, could roughly be equated to the one between Rufaro and the National Sports Stadium.
Only about 11km down the main highway that heads to the Cairo International Airport is what separates where Sunday Chidzambwa and his men have been calling their adopted home, since flying here from Nigeria, and where their pedigree will be tested by the Pharaohs next Friday night.
When the Warriors’ travelling party open their windows, to peep outside from their rooms at the Engineering Authority Guest House, they can see the turf at the Cairo Military Academy Stadium where, these days, Al Mokawloon, one of this country’s traditional football giants, occasionally play their home matches.
Back in the ‘80s, this club was largely known as Arab Contractors and were such a powerful force they won the old CAF Cup Winners Cup (now the Confederation Cup) twice in 1982 and 1983 before winning it again in 1986.
Their triumph in ’83 came at the cost of CAPS United’s shattered dreams with the Green Machine winning the first leg of their quarter-final showdown 2-1 at Rufaro before a 0-2 defeat here ended an adventure which, possibly, would have ended in triumph for them if the landscape in African football been transformed so much to what it has become today.
For, back then, it was virtually impossible for any Southern African side to win in these parts of the continent.
Al Mokawloon, or Arab Contractors, whichever name rolls better from your lips, are also a club steeped in history in this country because they used to be the home of two players – Mohamed Salah of Liverpool and Mohamed Elneny of Arsenal – the Warriors are likely to face next Friday.
That Salah played for them, and not be part of the historic divide that splits this huge metropolis of more than 20 million between Al Ahly and Zamalek, has in some way helped ensure his appeal in this country, and in this city, is widespread because he isn’t seen as a divisive symbol.
After taking a family holiday at an exotic resort, following his contribution to Liverpool’s return to the top of the table in European football and a league championship race where they only came short by a point, Salah is back home for the next chapter of his business – the AFCON finals.
When the Warriors were last here for the AFCON finals, in 2006, the Cairo Military Academy Stadium was one of the six stadiums which this country used to host the football festival.
Still, to many back home, the name of the place where the Warriors are currently based, Engineering Authority Guest House, might sound strange and provoke questions as to why their team decided to stay at a guest house.
Well, it’s a proper hotel and part of the investments by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, an arm of the Egyptian Ministry of Defence, which has interests in many areas, including but not limited to:
- Contributing in the development of infrastructure and the construction of roads, bridges and schools in the country.
- Playing a part in areas of political development and the construction and improvements of sports facilities here.
- Paying a part in helping the country develop through the establishment of major projects, including this facility.
- Helping the country’s civil sector by providing it with effective cadres who can make a difference to their nation.
- Playing a part in the development of cities.
Well, the Belgian connection among the Warriors, which include skipper Knowledge Musona and midfielder Marvelous Nakamba, might find it interesting that this area, which their team has made its adopted home since their arrival here, was also born out of influence from the European country.
A funny story, though, some might suggest.
Back in January 1904, a prominent Belgian businessman, Baron Empain, arrived here in a bid to try and rescue a railway construction project his wife wanted to undertake here.
Although he didn’t succeed, Empain stayed and would play a huge part in the development of what is now known as Heliopolis.
The railway line was supposed to connect El Matareya, a district in the northern part of this mega city, and Port Said, the city which, is you remember well, was the home of the Warriors when they were last here for the AFCON finals 13 years ago.