Star strikers Mohamed Salah and Sebastien Haller go head-to-head at sombre Afcon

Egypt and Ivory Coast meet in Cameroon two days after deadly crush at Olembe Stadium

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A sombre mood hung over the Africa Cup of Nations Tuesday, as the injured from the overcrowding at the Olembe Stadium during Cameroon’s match against Comoros were being treated in hospital and the number of fatalities reached eight. The tournament goes on, with some of the nations still involved recognising that scenes like those on Monday come to African arenas all too frequently.

In 2009, 19 lives were lost because of a stampede of spectators at a World Cup qualifier in Abidjan between Ivory Coast and Malawi, a tragedy remembered by members of the Ivorian delegation preparing for Wednesday’s last-16 tie in Douala.

The country the Ivorians will meet for a place in the quarter-finals, Egypt, is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the riot at Port Said of 2012, a horrific stadium disaster that left 74 dead and led to the suspension of their domestic league for two years.

Every Egyptian player of the current generation was affected by those events, and, a decade on, there remains a drive within the national team to lead the revival from that low point. The country and its football suffered in the years before and after Port Said.

Its best footballers were also pushed to find professional fulfilment abroad. Mohamed Salah — whose talent would have taken him sooner or later to the summit of the club game in Europe — left Al Mokawloon, where he was making a strong impression as a teenager, quicker than he might have if the local league had not gone into recess.

Salah made his Egypt debut in late 2011, when the Pharaohs were still holders of the Nations Cup, a title they had claimed for the third time in succession. The decline, post-2012, would be steep. In Salah, Egypt would find a lodestar for a new era, but though the country has hosted an Afcon and reached a final in the last five years, the Salah era is yet to deliver the trophy itself.

Egypt made a poor start in Cameroon, defeated by Nigeria in their group opener, but are entitled to feel Salah’s goal, the only strike of the victory over Guinea-Bissau, pointed them in the right direction. Sudan were then beaten to close out the group and set up the standout heavyweight clash of this first phase of knockouts.

Ivory Coast versus Egypt is the meeting of two former champions. It also puts, head-to-head, two goalscorers who have been at the top of their form this season in club football’s most prestigious competitions. Salah has missed Liverpool matches while at Afcon, but he left the Premier League title race scarcely concerned anybody else was likely to catch him up as the leading marksman in England’s top division. He has 16 goals so far from his 20 games.

His form in the Champions League has been exceptional, too. In most seasons, a strike-rate of seven Liverpool goals from six games would set a man clear of the rest. But this term’s group stage in the European Cup has been the personal playground of Sebastien Haller, the Ajax and Ivory Coast striker: in five-and-a-half Champions League games, he has 10 goals.

Haller and Salah are very distinct footballers, in style, but they share a backstory of overcoming setbacks. Both have suffered a degree of rejection in the Premier League, to where Salah moved at 21 to join Chelsea. He found himself marginalised at the London club, but relaunched his career in Italy and found the perfect platform for his strengths and ambitions with Liverpool.

Haller, born in France and successful in the Bundesliga, joined West Ham United when he was 25. The spell in England yielded a poor rate of goals given he had arrived for a club-record fee, some €50 million. He joined Ajax a year ago: 35 goals in 43 games later, has hardly looked back.

While at West Ham, Haller, now 27, committed to an international career with Ivory Coast, the country of his maternal heritage, having represented France at age-group level. He made a stunning start, coming off the bench to score on his Ivory Coast debut. He registered his fourth goal for his country in the 2-2 draw with Sierra Leone ten days ago.

“It’s my first Afcon and it’s a great competition,” said Haller on Tuesday. “There are things we can improve on, but we haven’t come here to not win it. I want to make history and grow with this national team.”

As for Egypt, Haller described “a team made for big games — with a genius player in Mo Salah”.

Updated: January 26, 2022, 9:51 AM