Monday,25 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Monday,25 March, 2019
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

We almost did it

Egypt was close to winning the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations but no cigar

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi meets the Egyptian national team at Cairo Airport (photos: Reuters & AP)

Must all good things come to an end? They certainly must. But sometimes the end is so sudden, so jolting.

That’s what it felt like on Sunday 5 February when Cameroon won the Africa Cup of Nations, coming from behind to defeat Egypt 2-1, scoring the winning goal with just two minutes left.

When Mohamed Al-Nenni saw a sliver of daylight between the post and goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa, the Arsenal star opened the score in the 22nd minute.

But Nicolas Nkoulou’s header equalised for Cameroon when he jumped higher than the rest on the hour mark.

Then substitute Vincent Aboubakar conjured up the moment of magic, flicking the ball over defender Ali Gabr at the worst possible time for Egypt.

It was not a happy ending to Egypt’s improbable run for the title. Cameroon were the better team, especially when it counted, in the second half, when Egypt did what it perennially does when it has a lead: clam up, defend and pray nothing else happens. When Egypt decided to defend too much, inviting the Indomitable Lions to come at them in the second half, it paid a heavy price.

Hadari receives the fair play trophy on behalf of the team

The small consolation for Egyptian fans is that Egypt was never supposed to be in the final in the first place, let alone win the whole show. Strange to say that of a country which had won this tournament a record seven times, including a record stretch of three crowns in a row beginning in 2006.

But two revolutions in three years not only unseated two sitting presidents. The political upheaval was devastating for the country’s No 1 past-time. The league years of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 had to be cancelled, and when the sport returned, security precautions forced domestic and international fixtures to be played without spectators. In the chaos of these notorious years, 72 fans were killed in a domestic league football riot.

It was the kind of milieu in which football could not possibly flourish. The obvious ironic result was that after winning the ACN three consecutive times, Egypt failed to qualify three consecutive times.

Which is why few people, even the most die-hard of supporters, expected much from Egypt in Gabon 2017. Egypt’s first game in Group D against Mali was a dull scoreless affair, providing proof to the public and pundits that being in the international wilderness for so long had had grave repercussions. A late 1-0 win over Uganda dispelled any hopes of greater success in the tournament. But a 1-0 win over Ghana, courtesy of a supersonic free kick from Roma star Mohamed Salah, propelled the Pharaohs to the quarter-finals, and had people starting to ask themselves if Egypt was actually better than they initially thought.

Egyptians in shock after losing the final

It was probably the 1-0 squeaker against North African rivals Morocco that Egypt came into its own. The last-minute close range flip by Kahraba not only put Egypt into the semi-finals but for the first time made the squad look like a genuinely serious contender for the title.

The penultimate game against Burkina Faso allowed Egypt’s goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadari to prove that age is just a number when, at 44 years young (the oldest player in the tournament’s history) he blocked two crucial spot kicks when the 1-1 game went to penalties.

But in the final it was not to be. Having played six games in 19 days, Egypt simply ran out of steam in the second half. And as fatigue set in, Cameroon’s young, powerful stallions kept the pressure on, pinning Egypt back and limiting it to long balls to Salah and substitute Ramadan Sobhi. Before Sunday’s match Egypt had not lost in the final of this competition for 55 years. That was some record, but it was about to fall.

Egyptians in shock after losing the final

Egypt could do nothing but sit back and arch long balls towards its attackers in the apparent strategy of hitting their opponents on the counter. But what worked before did not work now and Cameroon were justly rewarded.

Cameroon now has five African trophies, two shy of Egypt. And history did not repeat itself. Egypt had won their two previous meetings in the finals of 1986 and 2008 but it could not make it three.

But history was all for Egypt’s Argentinian coach Hector Cuper. Cuper’s losing streak in finals continues. At the helm of Mallorca in 1998, the team reached the final of the Cup Winners Cup where they lost to Lazio. With Valencia he lost the final of the Champions League two consecutive times; in 2000 against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in 2001.

If Lady Luck deserted Egypt in the end, it had smiled radiantly on it before. Teams better than Egypt were prematurely knocked out mercilessly. Pre-tournament favourites Algeria couldn’t get out of the starting blocks. Host country Gabon failed to progress from the group stage. Defending champions Cote d’Ivoire was nowhere to be seen. Though extra-strong Senegal and Tunisia — the latter always gives Egypt loads of problems — advanced to the quarters, Egypt mercifully did not engage with either.  

And to those who point out a depleted Egyptian team due to injuries and suspension, eight Cameroon players refused call-ups for the tournament, citing differences with the federation to not wanting to leave their clubs midway through the European season.

No, Egypt was not the best team in the tournament, certainly not in the final, not with a possession of 43 per cent against 57 per cent, just four shots to Cameroon’s 15, only two shots on target, and not a single corner.

Still, Egypt went further than most expected. Coming from having entirely missed three consecutive ACN editions to reaching the final on the fourth try must be some sort of record. So, have more sympathy with the average Egyptian who really needed a morale booster. The gloom and doom of their everyday lives in the wake of unprecedented price hikes needed the elixir of victory and a nationwide party celebration, if only for one night and a day.

But the Pharaohs couldn’t pull it off. Cameroon gave its acceptance speech; Egypt its concession.

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