Billed as their tournament to lose, Egypt crashed out of their own Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday night, defeated surprisingly by South Africa in the last 16 in Cairo.
Thembinkosi Lorch scored the game’s only goal five minutes from time; the first Egypt had conceded in four matches this tournament. Almost out of nowhere, it sealed their fate.
Seven-time champions, favourites on home soil and boasting Mohamed Salah within their ranks, the hosts were gone. Salah departed the Cairo International Stadium in tears. Shock winners, South Africa go on to meet Nigeria in the quarter-finals; Egypt slip from view. No doubt, the recriminations will be far-reaching.
Few, though, could really argue. Despite their three victories to top Group A, Egypt had failed to truly spark this month. Against South Africa, they fizzled out.
Even with the support of 100 million, even with a supposed Ballon d’Or contender, the home side came up well short. Suddenly, manager Javier Aguirre’s future seemed set.
To be fair, his players had crumbled under expectation, even though they began well the match. Salah’s first contribution of the night arrived on four minutes, although his half volley from the edge of the South Africa penalty was deflected wide.
However, granted Egypt had improved when in possession, but once more they were too open in defence. First, the impressive Percy Tau cut in from the right and fired straight at Mohamed El Shenawy. Then, midway through the half, his curled free-kick was expertly tipped over by the Egypt goalkeeper at full stretch.
On 24 minutes, Aguirre's men should have broken the deadlock. A quick counter led Salah to slide in Mahmoud Trezeguet, only for the winger to shoot tamely at Ronwen Williams. With just the South Africa goalkeeper to beat, he should have scored.
From there, Lorch and Kamohelo Mokotjo shot wide for Stuart Baxter’s men, while El Shenawy had to be alert to a Tau through-ball. Right on half-time, Salah drilled a free-kick well high and wide. It more or less summed up his evening until then.
To jolt his team into action, Aguirre withdrew Marwan Mohsen at the interval, replacing the striker with Ahmed Ali. Moments into the second half, Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny fired inches over from range.
Still, Egypt weren't entirely comfortable. Just before the hour, they wasted another fine opportunity. Salah’s sublime pass split the South Africa defence but, again, Trezeguet’s feeble first-time effort was straight at Williams. The Kasimpasa winger miscued somehow once more. It was the game’s best chance.
Then, Amr Warda was introduced to a predictably mixed response. The midfielder had been excluded and then recalled to the Egypt squad last week following allegations of sexual harassment.
Twenty minutes from time, South Africa offered a sign of what was to come. Sifiso Hlanti swung in a free-kick from the right, captain Thulani Hlatshwayo rose unmarked at the back post, yet directed off target his downward header. The stadium drew its collective breath.
Two minutes later, Lorch got in behind the Egypt defence to fire straight at El Shenawy, the nerves felt in the stands seemingly transmitted to the players on the pitch.
With five minutes remaining, Egypt’s worst fears were realised. South Africa broke forward, Ahmed Hegazi was left to defend two opponents, Lebo Mothiba played in Lorch and left the forward to finish well past El Sherway. Suddenly, silence.
A first goal conceded in 355 Africa Cup of Nations minutes was enough. Rocked on an upset night in Cairo, Egypt were sent spiralling.