The Americans are coming. So are the Germans, the English, and the Brazilians. It is not a war or a political conference, but a global sporting event: the U-20 World Cup.
Cairo had hoped to be the venue for the 2010 World Cup but South Africa won the bid. As a consolation prize, Egypt is hosting the U-20 World Cup starting today. The U-20 is global competition of football players under the age of 20.
Despite obvious disappointment at not garnering the top billing, Egyptians remain positive that a good tournament will go a long way toward attracting confidence for future bids for international events.
“We have held the African Cup more than once, now we get this tournament, so hopefully the world will start to see how Egypt does things,” said Omar Hussein, a 27-year-old web designer and avid football aficionado. “Egypt will do well, in both playing and hosting, so it will show how we deserved it more than South Africa.”
Egyptian officials are hopeful that it will be a competition worth remembering, despite the lack of fanfare behind the event, which features 16 teams from around the globe.
For the opening match, which features Egypt squaring off against Trinidad and Tobago, FIFA has reported approximately 50,000 tickets sold so far. The game will take place at Borg el-Arab military stadium and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter are expected to attend.
The tournament’s beginning comes as Egyptian life returns to normalcy after a holiday vacation to mark the Eid festival, but Egyptian tournament officials are optimistic that come Thursday the country will be ready for football.
“The Eid and holiday period will be a great opportunity for the Egyptian public to get behind their team and cheer them to victory. The crowd will turn out to support our team especially if they are winning. The Egyptians love sport and love to win,” said FIFA U-20 World Cup director Khaled Abdel Aziz in a statement.
“A short while ago Egypt hosted the World Youth Handball Championship; at the beginning there were no more than 200 people watching each game, but as they continued to win, the team found themselves playing in front of 20,000 supporters,” he added.
Egyptian officials are hopeful that the opening match on the northern coast will be a chance for vacationers to take a few hours off from lounging on the beach to cheer on the home team.
But the tournament opens with some controversy. Earlier this month, the government postponed the beginning of the academic year until 3 October, with possible plans to extend the delay or shorten the school week on a rotation basis. Yet the tournament, which is expected to see thousands of people in one location, has not been issued a similar warning.
Abdel Aziz said that this is because “all the necessary precautions are being taken and we don’t expect there to be any issues in an open-air atmosphere.”
He maintains that despite the fears of the swine flu virus, the school closures could give life to the tournament, as classes will not interfere with young people’s ability to watch the matches.
“It definitely has its positives and hopefully it will mean more people heading out to watch their national team,” he said.
The tourism industry is enjoying a boost as thousands of foreigners flock to Egypt for the tournament. Over the weekend, the Cameroon team was spotted near the pyramids in Giza taking in the sites.
Mahmoud Hefnawy, who guided the Cameroonians around the site, says it is great to see young people interested in the country’s history even while they prepare for a big tournament.
“I liked the guys. They were nice, eager and full of energy. Now, at least I have another team to root for besides Egypt,” he said.
Hotels are pleased with the turnout, with at least one mid-range establishment boasting of full capacity for the first time all year. Hossam, the on-call manager at Longchamps Hotel in Zamalek, says they are sold out for the next few weeks with Spaniards and Italians here to watch their teams compete for World Cup glory.
“Not since last winter have we been forced to turn people away. It is nice for a change to be so busy,” he said.
The tournament begins today, but only one nation will be crowned U-20 World Cup Champions on Friday, 16 October, at Cairo Stadium.