Paul Biya Stadium.
The stage is set for the second biggest footballing event of the year after the World Cup – The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals. Heads of states, FIFA president Giovanni Infantino, heads of national football federations and other dignitaries from across the world are present. It’s Egypt, AFCON’S seven-time champions, versus Senegal, who had never won the trophy despite featuring in two AFCON finals in 2002 and 2019. It is, however, not the first time these two teams are playing each other.
The Pharaohs of Egypt and Senegal’s Lions of Teranga had played against each other in twelve previous games, but not in the AFCON finals. The Egyptians had the better record, winning six of the bouts. Senegal won four and shared the spoils with Egypt twice. The Pharaohs were hoping to secure their AFCON eighth trophy. Senegal, led by Aliou Cisse, who had lost the finals twice (once as a player in 2002 and once as a manager in 2019), were hoping to bury the jinx.
It was also a match replete with stars from European clubs, most of whom were playing for Senegal. Egypt’s Mo Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mane made the banners and posters of the match with headlines calling it a Liverpool affair because the two wingers play for the Merseyside giant of a football club. Indisputably Salah and Mane, both of whom have won the African Footballer of the Year award in 2018 and 2019, respectively, were rightful headliners of the fixture. However, other stars pulled their weight on the pitch, like Watford’s forward Dennis Sarr, who was a thorn in Egypt’s flesh as he created bountiful chances for Sadio Mane and Famara Diedhiou to squander.
Senegalese skipper Kalidou Koulibaly who plays in Italy for Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli was a notable addition. He missed the 2019 AFCON finals against Algeria because of suspension having accumulated three yellow cards in two games. This time, the central defender, who is deceptively quick for his size, bullied anyone and anything away from the Senegalese penalty box.
The Pharaohs’ Bus
But balls into the Senegal box were few and far between. Egypt had won the last six penalty shootouts, including two against Ivory Coast and Cameroon in this tournament, and had devised a way to play what is now commonly known as ‘anti-football’ – what Jose Mourinho, Roma’s manager called “packing the bus” in 2004 after he drew against a Tottenham Hotspurs side that came to defend.
“As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal. I would have been frustrated if I had been a supporter who paid £50 to watch this game because Spurs came to defend,’’ Jose said. “There was only one team looking to win, they only came not to concede – it’s not fair for the football we played.”
Ironically, this type of football is credited to Mourinho. The Portuguese gaffer rose to prominence when he won the Champions League with Porto FC as an underdog. Mourinho is known for managing sides that sit back and counterattack at opponents. It is a tactic used by teams humble enough to know they cannot match the technique and deft of their opponents.
Mirror Mirror on the Wall…
On paper, Egypt could not match the Senegalese man for man. Neither could the team compare to former Egyptian teams that had the likes of Mohamed Aboutriker and the legendary goalkeeper Essam El Hadary who is now on Egypt’s technical bench as the goalkeeper trainer. It was thus understandable and expected that Egypt sat back and soaked in pressure from the Cisse led team. The Pharaohs had, after all, successfully done this against the hosts, Cameroon.
On their part, the Lions of Teranga had the chance to tell a different story after earning a penalty in the 3rd minute. But Sadio Mane, who has never been one to take penalties in Liverpool or his former club Southampton, stepped up to take the penalty. It is perhaps Mane’s celebrity status that made him the first choice penalty-taker even when he was a notorious bottler of such set pieces, notably against Kenya, Uganda and Cameroon. Mane was on target but failed to score when Mohamed Gabal parried the ball away.
What’s a King to a God?
In the past year, Mohamed Salah has been mentioned in the same breath as seven-time Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi. Their style of play is almost the same, and Salah’s ability to create goals and assists from nothing has also earned him the moniker King Salah. And from this interview with GQ sports, Salah is not afraid to wear the crown, and neither were his Egyptian teammates belittled by it.
The Egyptians readily looked up to Salah to bail them out, which he had done against Morocco where he scored and assisted the match-winning goal. However, his performances against Cameroon in the semi-final and Senegal in the final showed why the tournament’s top scorer, Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar, doesn’t think Salah fits the world’s best billing. Salah was reduced to joining his mates in dramatic antics towards the referee, so much so that Victor Gomez, the South African centre referee, offered the whistle and cards to Salah to officiate the match.
It’s not that the Egyptians felt hard done by. All the sideshows were part of the plan. They are usually an ingredient used by teams that deploy the anti-football tactic. Egypt’s manager, Carlos Queiroz, was not on the bench, as he was serving a ban after receiving a red card in the semi-final match against Cameroon. His offence? You guessed it, angst towards the referee.
Still, the North Africans fought tooth and nail to take the match to penalties. For a team that had played three 120-minute football matches before the finals, the Pharaohs did well to keep up with the Lions of Teranga stride for stride. All the while, they tried to find their King, hoping he would turn to God and create something from nothing. But how the Lions of Teranga handled the left-footed Salah was borderline insolent. After all, Senegal’s midfield of Idrissa Guana Gueye and Mendy have played against Salah in the EPL and Kalidou Koulibaly’s counterpart in the Senegalese defence, Abdou Diallo, trains with the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar Jr and Lionel Messi on a daily when he is in Paris Saint Germain.
Kept the Ball and the Trophy
When Jose Mourinho was once interviewed about his anti-football tactics, the journalist said that Mourinho’s team had only 20% of the possession. Mourinho replied, “They (his opponents) can keep the ball, I will go with the three points.”
To be fair to Egypt, their antics were not that much of a shit-show as we have been accustomed to seeing in modern football when teams resolve to pack the bus. Egypt had 48 per cent of the ball.
The Pharaohs had also done their homework in learning how the Senegalese players take their penalties. Gabaski had a bottle with stickers showing where Senegal players usually place their penalties. But they must have forgotten that Senegal had Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy, the current best goalkeeper in the world between the sticks.
Édouard Mendy was voted 2021 FIFA’s best goalkeeper and had featured in three cup finals in the last year. So when it came to the penalties, as much as Egypt had perfected the art of knocking out their opponents via these set pieces, Senegal was not that of a pushover.
Hence when it came to taking his penalty, Egypt’s Mohamed Abdelmonem must have been intimidated by Mendy’s stature. The 6’4 goalkeeper was dancing on the goal line as Abdelmonem channelled the poise he had when he scored the penalties against Ivory Coast and Cameroon. It seemed he had deceived Mendy, who dived the wrong way, but the ball pinged back on the post.
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man
Mendy saved another penalty from Mohanad Lasheen, who came on as a substitute. And the stage was set for Sadio Mane to defy Murphy’s law.
Mane was pacing around as his teammates scored or missed their penalties. It was, as Sir Alex Ferguson called it, squeaky-bum time for the scouser because Mane was not only carrying his country’s pride on his shoulders but also the hope of every football fan who was rooting for tactician Aliou Cisse. Surely, the dreadlocked manager would not lose the final for the third time?
When Mane stepped up to take the penalty, the execution was so powerful and precise that even Gabaski’s dive and stretch could not reach it. Mane hit the football with the venom of a man who was tired of anti-football, and as the net dangled from the power, the crowd in Paul Biya Stadium roared. Mane had clinched a first for his country and his manager. Football prevailed.