Cameroon v Egypt: Two Africa Cup of Nations beasts meet once again in unexpected final

Ian Hawkey picks out some of the major talking points ahead of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations final.

Cameroon players take part in a training session at sunset in Gabon ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations final against Egypt. Samuel Shivambu / EPA
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The 31st edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) will bestow its prize on a familiar champion.

For Egypt, a triumph would mean they take home the trophy for the eighth time. For Cameroon, it would be a fifth, and if they do that they would trail only Egypt in the continent’s rankings of champions. In short, the two Afcon big beasts of the last 60 years are paired in Sunday’s final.

Yet few would have predicted that. Egypt are at their first Nations Cup since 2010, when they achieved their seventh title. They then promptly plummeted, failing to reach any of the next three tournaments. Cameroon, though consistently at World Cups — and regularly frail once there — had also declined since they recorded their last medal, as runners-up to Egypt in 2008, absent as often as they were present across the last four tournaments.

Call it a renaissance on both counts, and certainly call it a classic. Two traditional powers, a North African versus a sub-Saharan. Plenty to whet the appetite.


Read more

■ Hugo Broos: Defying convention to guide Cameroon to final

■ Ayew brothers: Keeping Ghana dynasty near the top

■ Essam El Hadary: Ageless keeper has Egypt close to past glory


Can Hector Cuper break his jinx?

Hector Cuper, the stoic Argentine manager in charge of Egypt, is a past master at guiding teams to finals. The trouble is, his record once in them is ... well, the best that might be said is that he’s due a turn of fortune.

It is 15 years since poor Cuper, 61, oversaw a dramatic reverse when managing Inter Milan, when, on the very last day of the Serie A season, his Inter gave up top place in a table they had set the pace in.

Given that that reverse came 12 months after successive defeats in Uefa Champions League finals, when he managed Valencia, and not long after he collected a runners-up medal as manager of Real Mallorca in the European Cup-Winners Cup, he attained a notoriety for his silvers, his inability to grab the golds.

It has been a hard habit to shake off. Seven years ago, Cuper was in a final again, in charge of the Greek club, Aris Thessaloniki.

Again, his team finished second. Those near-misses haunt him, though the Egypt he has galvanised have looked, like many of the clubs he has managed, formidably solid and hard to penetrate.

Are you watching, Joel Matip?

This Nations Cup was far from the first tournament that Cameroon have approached with tensions behind the scenes, but the fallout appeared especially damaging.

No fewer than eight players preselected for the tournament by manager Hugo Broos, all of them employed at clubs in leading leagues in Europe declined the invitation to take part.

Players like Liverpool’s Joel Matip and his fellow Premier League defender, West Bromwich Albion’s Allan Nyom; the Schalke striker Eric Choupo-Moting, Ajax’s Andre Onana, and a quartet of players employed in France’s Ligue 1.

Suddenly Broos was having to put his trust in less experienced or worldly players. But it seems the formula, the faith, has worked and even that it liberated Cameroon, and indeed their Belgian manager, who has been bold enough to leave the likes of striker Vincent Aboubaker and defender Nicolas Nkoulou, high-profile stars who did not withdraw, on the substitutes bench.

Matip and Co are bound to watch Sunday’s final, from afar, with mixed emotions.

Battle of the Keepers, Junior and Veteran

Egypt have conceded just one goal at this Nations Cup — excluding those in a penalty shoot-out — and done so having lost a goalkeeper, Ahmed El Shenawy, to injury in their opening game.

His replacement, Essam El Hadary, has had a dream three weeks, returning to prominence at the age of 44, heroic in the shoot-out that won the semi-final against Burkina Faso and now chasing his fifth Afcon title.

El Hadary is more than twice the age of his opposite number, Cameroon’s Fabrice Ondoa, who only turned 21 in December and currently battles for a spot in the line-up of Sevilla Atletico in the third tier of Spanish football. Ondoa has made some spectacular, sometimes unorthodox saves to help Cameroon into the final and gives every impression of becoming, in time, an heir to the country’s fine tradition of glovemen, from Tommy Nkono and Jojo Bell in the late 20th century to Carlos Kameni in the 21st.

El Hadary’s unique story, meanwhile, bridges millennia. He won his first Afcon in 1998. If he can deal tidily with crosses — Cameroon will want to test that — he can make history on Sunday. Ondoa should have many more opportunities to do so.

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