Senegal prevailed on penalties against seven-time winners Egypt in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) to win the competition for the first time in their history, with Aliou Cissé triumphing in what is his third final involvement.
This edition of the AFCON has been shrouded in controversy – incredulous refereeing displays, rising COVID-19 infections, and stadium stampedes are just some of the issues the organisers have been unable to avoid. Only a thrilling showpiece, would add some gloss to the tournament as it came to an end – and perhaps not even that would be enough.
Senegal seemed determined to right the wrongs of their defeat to Algeria in the last AFCON final, and they had a chance within four minutes to take the lead when Mohamed Abdelmonem brought down Saliou Ciss in the penalty area. ‘Teranga Lions’ talisman Sadio Mané stepped up to take the spot-kick against Gabaski, who saved two penalties during Egypt’s semi-final shoot-out win over Cameroon. Once again, the ‘Pharaohs’ shot-stopper was the hero as he parried Mané’s effort around the post.
The rest of the opening period was cagey, although Senegal were the more positive. Ismaïla Sarr was his side’s most dangerous threat, as Mohamed Salah, unsurprisingly, was for Egypt. The Liverpool forward created two openings for himself, but both strikes were denied by Édouard Mendy as the scores remained level at the HT interval.
The second period provided little in the way of entertaining goalmouth action. Egypt had conceded just twice in the tournament prior to this match, and their defensive solidity afforded Senegal few real opportunities. Even when Cissé’s men did threaten to break the deadlock, Gabaski was always on hand to keep his side’s net empty.
As the affair became more and more scrappy, Egypt had arguably the better chances. Ahmed Hamdy and Abdelmonem both got on the end of dangerous crosses, but their headers lacked the necessary direction to truly threaten Mendy. Given the balance of play and the fact that five AFCON finals since 2000 have gone to extra-time, the proposition of 30 more minutes had an air of inevitability.
Within seconds of the restart, Senegal had perhaps their best chance since Mané’s missed penalty as Bamba Dieng bore down on goal. Once again, though, Gabaski produced an impressive save, just as he did soon after from the same opponent’s header. Dieng once again tested Gabaski, as did Hamdy Mendy, but no one could stop the clash from going to the most-dreaded of conclusions: a penalty shoot-out.
As Egypt boss Carlos Quieroz watched on from the stands after being suspended from the touchline during his side’s victory last time out, his counterpart Cissé was ultimately the one celebrating after losing as a player in 2002 and as a manager three years ago. In a twist of fate, it was Mané who stepped up to net the winning spot-kick in a show of supreme mental strength.
Senegal were worthy winners, but questions must be asked of the organising committee. The African continent is blessed with outstanding talent, but too often they are let down by incompetence from the authorities tasked with putting on a show as the world watches.