Libreville, Gabon | AFP |
Cameroon and Egypt are both aiming to cap remarkable revivals by winning the Africa Cup of Nations when they meet in a final that few thought possible in Libreville on Sunday evening.
These are two of the most successful nations in the 60-year history of the competition, with Egypt unrivalled on seven titles and Cameroon, four-time winners, just behind alongside Ghana.
But at the outset of the tournament in Gabon it was the likes of Algeria, Senegal and defending champions the Ivory Coast who were considered the favourites, with Egypt dark horses in their first appearance since 2010.
Cameroon, meanwhile, came with what looked like their weakest ever squad, handicapped by the refusal of several leading players to accept call-ups from Belgian coach Hugo Broos.
Yet the Indomitable Lions qualified from their group at the expense of the hosts and have since knocked out both Senegal and Ghana to make their first final since 2008.
Then, with a side containing the likes of Rigobert Song and Samuel Eto’o, they lost 1-0 to the Egyptians in Ghana’s capital Accra.
This current Cameroon side has no such big name stars but Broos has transformed their fortunes over the last 12 months and is now looking for them to make history.
“For these young players — 14 of the 23 are playing at their first Cup of Nations — it is possibly a unique opportunity in their careers to win the trophy,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, captain Benjamin Moukandjo added: “Of course when you get to this stage you want to win but I think looking at the run we have had we have already done well.
“I don’t think anyone here would have bet a cent on us beforehand and that’s a real shame.”
Cameroon, who last won the title in 2002, have had 24 hours less time to recover and ready themselves for the game at the Stade de l’Amitie after second-half goals by Michael Ngadeu and Christian Bassogog gave them a 2-0 win against Ghana in Franceville on Thursday.
Egypt played their semi-final in Libreville on Wednesday, although they needed extra time and penalties to see off Burkina Faso after a 1-1 draw, veteran 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam El Hadary — already four times a winner of the competition — proving their hero in the shoot-out.
– Formidable –
The Egyptians had won three consecutive Cups of Nations between 2006 and 2010 but missed the last three tournaments amid political upheaval in the country before Argentine Hector Cuper led them to back onto the scene here.
Like Broos, Cuper has a young squad, although there are four survivors from the team that won the title in 2010 in El Hadary, Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Abdel-Shafi and the Hull City wing-back Ahmed Elmohamady.
The Pharaohs have not exactly been a joy to watch — they have built their success under Cuper around a rock-solid defence that has only conceded one goal so far in Gabon, while they have relied heavily on the star quality of Mohamed Salah at the other end.
“Egypt will not be very different to what we have seen so far, whether people like that or not, whether that means we will be attacking or not,” Cuper told reporters on Saturday.
“What we will be looking for is a result and up to now we have had results.”
Cuper, who has Arsenal midfielder Mohamd Elneny struggling with a calf injury, is eager to shake off his own reputation as a loser having suffered numerous agonising defeats in finals in his career.
But Egypt have a quite formidable record in finals — just one defeat in eight Cup of Nations finals and two wins out of two on such occasions against Cameroon, with the first coming on penalties in Cairo in 1986.
“It’s a great way to end the competition in the final but it will be even better if we win the cup,” said Elmohamady.