Not even the most optimistic of Egypt fans expected to see the national team to gracing the final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2017 on 5 February. Having failed to qualify for the previous three editions, logic suggested the team would need a major overhaul before it could again aspire to continental glory. With that having taken effect, with this latest squad largely comprised of a new generation making their Cup of Nations debuts, it was anyone’s guess how well they would fare in Gabon.
As always, though, the Pharaohs have followed their own script and reminded the rest of Africa that when they come to continental championships, they do so not to take part or gain experience, but to win. Game after game at Gabon 2017, they have shown they have what it takes to return to their favourite spot on the podium. Fortified by their impressive history, the seven-time African champions went to Gabon with a strong squad featuring three Cup of Nations veterans, a few overseas stars and a group of battle-hardened pros who ply their trade in the Egyptian league.
En route to the final, Hector Cuper’s charges topped Group E with seven points, then beat Morocco in the quarter-finals before edging out Burkina Faso to reach the decider. While few would dispute that Egypt’s success owes much to the work ethic and group ethos espoused by their coach, a lot of credit should also go to the skipper, Essam El Hadary. Having kept clean sheets in the opening four games, the 44-year-old custodian was once again the shootout hero after saving the last two penalties to secure his side’s place in the final.
“I was nervous before the game,” the keeper said, “and we had to deal with some difficult circumstances. We had a hard game against Morocco and then had to move cities and face a team who’d had an extra day’s rest. In addition, we were missing some key players due to injury. However, as always, we fight for our country and once we cross the white line, we forget all the other stuff and just focus on our ultimate goal.
“We had a tough 120 minutes against Burkina Faso but, when it went to penalties, I stayed positive and remembered our epic [penalty shoot-out] win against Côte d'Ivoire in the 2006 final," El Hadary added. "I never doubted our ability to win even after we missed the first penalty. I managed to keep my composure throughout, but after they scored their first three penalties, I changed my strategy by waiting for an extra second before deciding which way to go. That way, I was able to keep out the final two kicks. I’m thrilled we were able to make millions happy back home and promise we’ll do our best to lift the trophy.”
I missed three spot kicks in training the day before the game, but when the moment came, I was confident I was going to score.
Having scored his first goal of Gabon 2017 against Ghana in the group stage, Mohamed Salah netted his second in the semi-final when he curled home a sublime opener for the Pharaohs, only for Aristide Bance to level shortly afterwards for the Stallions. Speaking after the game, Salah refused to take the credit, saying, “Team effort brought about that goal. We worked the ball out from the back and through the middle until it reached Kahraba, who laid it off to me perfectly. I just placed it in the corner, where it’s very hard for the keeper to reach.”
When the match went into extra time and then penalties, players with confidence and strong nerves were called for. In deciding on his penalty takers, Cuper applied his usual strict criteria, as he explained afterwards: “Penalties don’t just depend on luck, but also on a player’s psychological and mental strength.” Accordingly, he agreed to let Ramadan Sobhi take the second spot kick after the 20-year-old asked for it, and the Stoke City man duly converted with a Panenka chip.
The player himself talked about the decision, saying: “I missed three spot kicks in training the day before the game, but when the moment came, I was confident I was going to score. I made the decision then to go Panenka-style. The keeper got a hand to the ball but it went in, so I told my team-mates to blast their ones into one corner or the other, as the goalkeeper was waiting for us to hit them before moving.”
The defeat of Burkina Faso brought back memories of the 1998 Cup of Nations, when Egypt beat the same opponent in the semis en-route to their fourth title, secured at the expense of South Africa. Now, the Pharaohs are just one step away from what would be their eight African crown and third appearance at the FIFA Confederations Cup.