I arrived in Egypt for the Afcon tournament in the early hours last Sunday morning, checking into my hotel at about 2.30am.
This unearthly hour may seem odd; it was because of a long-haul flight from OR Tambo International Airport, via Dubai, to Egypt – a journey that took 11 hours, culminating in my landing at Cairo International Airport.
Although I have not interacted much with Bafana Bafana except for when the team is busy training, being in the same surroundings as they are gives me a “home away from home” kind of feeling – I know that I’m at least around people who speak my language.
Most Egyptians struggle to construct a sentence in English; this has been a huge challenge for those of us who don’t speak Arabic as we try to make sense of what is being communicated.
It is a daily struggle, especially while waiting for a taxi (Uber) and having to confirm the exact pick-up location with the driver. For example, you send a text in English and they respond in Arabic. They can only type “Ok”.
But, so far, things have turned out well.
One of the trips I took was to Cairo International Stadium, which is about 12km away from where I am based. It is supposed to take 15 minutes to get there, but takes about 35 minutes because of intense traffic congestion. Locals say this is normal.
While many tourists get a kick out of coming to Egypt to see the pyramids, attending a match involving the host team gives football fans like me just as much of a kick, pun intended.
Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane often shares interesting anecdotes about the passion of north African football fans based on the experiences he’s had with the team in the CAF Champions League.
I had the privilege of attending the double-header at Cairo stadium on Wednesday: Egypt versus the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the match between Zimbabwe and Uganda.
The majestic arena was packed to capacity, with Congolese and Zimbabwean fans sprinkled in small patches among a sea of Egyptian supporters all clad in red.
The Egyptians love Mo Salah to bits; it was evident in the way they reacted when the Liverpool striker opened his Afcon scoring account – their cheers almost blew the roof off. And, while Egypt has a new star in Mahmoud Trézéguet, almost half of the supporters wore jerseys marked “M Salah 10” at the back.
Security at matches is watertight. Fans are prohibited from carrying gadgets such as cellphone powerbank chargers and cigarette lighters into the stadium. Even at the hotels and malls, every parcel goes through an X-ray scanner.
It is midsummer in Egypt, where temperatures can soar to 39°C. Spare a thought for the players confronted by this heat in the matches that kick off early. Even the 10pm games are played in humid conditions.
As for me, I’m enjoying the weather – it’s a welcome break from winter back home.