Written off after their campaign’s dismal start, Egypt have gone all the way to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, dispatching some of the continent’s heavyweights along the way and, just as importantly, discovering new gems in the squad.
What the Pharaohs lacked in flair and clinical finishing in Cameroon, they more than made up for with grit and team spirit, having won their last three matches after extra time against the Ivory Coast, Morocco and hosts Cameroon on Thursday night.
These victories seemed unthinkable after Egypt opened its campaign with a defeat to Nigeria in a group match. Their 1-0 wins against minnows Guinea-Bissau and Sudan were unconvincing.
Even Liverpool’s prolific winger Mohamed Salah, one of the world’s best players, was a shadow of the player who routinely torments the best of defenders in Premier and Champions League matches.
But this is all behind the Pharaohs now.
What stands between them and a record-extending eight titles in Africa’s marquee tournament is Senegal, who will be playing their second consecutive Afcon final on Sunday after they lost 1-0 to Algeria in Cairo in 2019.
The West Africans, led by Salah's teammate Sadio Mane, will again stand in the way of Egypt when the two clash next month in a two-leg playoff that will decide which side goes to the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
But what’s more pressing now for the Pharaohs is fatigue, having played 90 more minutes of football than the Senegalese, who also go to Sunday’s final having rested one more day than their opponents.
Egypt, moreover, are short-handed following the loss to injury of several of the squad’s starters, including goalkeeper Mohammed El Shennawy and centre-back Ahmed Hegazy.
The Pharaohs’ 3-1 penalty shoot-out win against Cameroon sparked an outburst of euphoria in the Egyptian capital Cairo, where supporters braved the cold night and the threat of coronavirus to pack tea houses and cafes to watch the match.
The final whistle sent tens of thousands celebrating across the Nile-side city of more than 20 million people, with motorists honking and pedestrians waving Egyptian flags.
Win or lose on Sunday, the Egyptians will always remember the last three weeks in Cameroon as a trying time when circumstance gave rise to new squad stars whose invaluable service in the 24-nation tournament is likely to continue well after it ends.
The first star is 33-year-old goalkeeper Mohammed Abu Gabal, who had for years lived in the shadow of El Shennawy, possibly Africa’s best goalkeeper. El Shennawy was injured in the round-of-16 match against Ivory Coast, but Abu Gabal came in and, after a couple of spectacular saves in regular time, made the penalty shoot-out save that secured the win for the Pharaohs.
He started against Morocco on Sunday but was replaced in the second half when he pulled a muscle, with 23-year-old Mohammed Sobhy making his international debut. Abu Gabal’s swift recovery allowed him to start against Cameroon on Thursday when he again secured victory with two saves in the penalty shoot-out.
The second star to shine in Cameroon for the Pharaohs is defender Mohammed Abdel Monaim, 23, whose tireless efforts throughout 120 minutes of play against Cameroon won him the Man of the Match Award.
Abdel Monaim has yet to play a single match with the senior squad of Cairo’s giant club Al Ahly having been lent to lesser sides since he came up from the youth ranks.
In Cameroon, he scored Egypt’s lone goal against Sudan. He came close to scoring against Morocco with a powerful header that was saved by goalkeeper Bono, who could not hold on to the ball, allowing Salah to tap it in from close range to pull the score level at 1-1.
“We had not seen a player of his calibre in years,” said commentator Sabry Sirag. “He is not a defender who depends on physical strength. He has a great ability to predict where the ball is going. He has personality and a great future ahead of him.”
The third star born in Cameroon was 29-year-old defender Omar Kamal, who owes his chance to shine to the tournament-ending knee injury suffered by back-right Akram Tawfiq 12 minutes into the match against Nigeria.
“He has proved to be a rock in defence but will sadly miss Sunday’s match through suspension,” said football analyst Mahmoud El Makhbazi.