Vincent Aboubakar came off the bench to score a stunning winner with two minutes left as Cameroon fought back to beat Egypt 2-1 in a thrilling Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday.
Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny had given Egypt the lead midway through the first half and Egypt looked to be on course to win an unrivalled eighth Cup of Nations crown in their first appearance at the tournament since 2010.
But Nicolas Nkoulou, who had come off the bench in the first half, headed in the equaliser just before the hour mark and fellow substitute Aboubakar slammed in the winner in the 88th minute.
That sparked bedlam in a near-capacity crowd of more than 38,000 in Gabon’s capital, made up in its majority by Cameroonian supporters.
It is a fifth Cup of Nations crown for the Indomitable Lions, a first since 2002, and the first time they have beaten Egypt in the final in three attempts.
“I am very happy that we won the Cup of Nations today and I am happy for the players — this is not a group of football players, they are a group of friends,” said Cameroon’s Belgian coach Hugo Broos.
Egypt fell just short on their return to the competition after a seven-year absence, and the defeat will be especially painful for their coach Hector Cuper.
The Argentine was desperate to win a trophy after a career tainted by rotten luck in finals at club level, including back-to-back defeats in the UEFA Champions League with Valencia at the start of the last decade.
But Cuper said: “The sadness I have is not because I lost another final, it’s because there was so much hope especially among the people in Egypt and I am sorry for the players who put in so much effort.”
Egypt have been derided at times for a defensive approach under Cuper, but they played their part in this rarest of things — a genuinely entertaining final.
The Pharaohs had signalled their intent within two minutes as a delightful cushioned pass by Mohamed Salah set up Abdallah El Said, but his firm shot was well held by Fabrice Ondoa in the Cameroon goal.
Egypt then opened the scoring midway through the first period with a superb team goal. Amr Warda and Salah combined on the right and the latter played the ball into Elneny in space in the area, the midfielder taking a touch to control and another to steady himself before blasting high past Ondoa at his near post.
It was a brilliant finish from the midfielder who was returning to the side after missing his team’s last two games due to a calf injury.
The odds were now very much against Cameroon.
The last Cup of Nations final to feature more than a single goal came in 2004, when Tunisia beat Morocco 2-1. The last time a side came from behind to win the trophy was in 1994, when Nigeria beat Zambia 2-1.
Hugo Broos’s side also lost centre-back Adolphe Teikeu to an apparent groin injury just after the half-hour mark, with Nkoulou taking his place.
The Lyon defender has been out of favour at this tournament, only starting in Cameroon’s final group game against Gabon. But thrown on here through necessity, it was he who pulled his side level in the 59th minute.
Egypt failed to fully clear their lines following a corner and captain Benjamin Moukandjo crossed from the left for Nkoulou, who soared above Ahmed Hegazy to head past Essam El Hadary from six yards.
Cameroon were revitalised by that goal, a partisan crowd lifted, but Jacques Zoua fired wastefully wide and Moukandjo blasted over from an excellent position as extra time began to seem inevitable.
Then Aboubakar, who had been introduced at the start of the second half, controlled a long ball forward with his chest on the edge of the area, poked it over the head of Ali Gabr and volleyed low past El Hadary.
Essam El-Hadary is truly one of a kind. At the age of 44, he is the oldest ever player to have graced the African Cup of Nations. On Sunday, he can become the first ever player to win the tournament five times, as Egypt face Cameroon in the final.
However, his dream is even bigger – the legendary goalkeeper aspires to play at the World Cup when he is 45. He has been talking about it for a while, and you will be very unwise not to take him seriously.
El-Hadary has always managed to reach unthinkable heights against all odds. After all, few expected him to play in Gabon this winter, but he is about to become a national hero once again.
One of the most amazing aspects of El-Hadary’s incredible career is that despite having won 152 international caps he can arguably be considered a late bloomer.
He joined Al Ahly at 23, back in 1996, and made his debut for Egypt during the same year, but wasn’t a starter. Zamalek’s Nader El-Sayed was considered a much more talented and stable keeper, and since both were of the same age, El-Hadary’s chances of having a successful international career looked pretty slim.
He was on the bench when the Pharaohs won the African Cup of Nations in 1998, and looked destined for the same fate for a long time thereafter.
The turnaround occured in 2001, when Al Ahly hosted Real Madrid in a big friendly in Cairo. Los Blancos fielded their best team, but ended up losing 1-0 as El-Hadary produced a sensational performance.
He was 28 already at the time, and it is amazing to think that Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo are only a few months older than him, while Roberto Carlos and Claude Makelele are younger than the Egyptian legend, not to mention Raul and Michel Salgado.
Iker Casillas was just 20 those days, and he was hugely impressed by El-Hadary’s skills while watching him from the bench. The man who went on to become one of the greatest goalkeepers in history acknowldeged that El-Hadary became his role model, and he specifically studied his technique.
El-Hadary first played in the African Cup of Nations in 2002, but became undisputed “number one” only after El-Sayed retired in 2005.
In 2006, he won his first international trophy for his country, and that was a very emotional occasion because the tournament took place on home soil. Ivory Coast were considered favourites, but Egypt kept Didier Drogba and his teammates at bay in 120 scoreless minutes in the final.
El-Hadary then proceeded to stop the Chelsea striker’s effort in the penalty shoot-out on the way to a famous win. “He is the toughest keeper I have ever played against,” Drogba claimed.
That triumph was the final accord of Hossam Hassan’s Egypt international career, as the country’s all-time top scorer retired at the age of 39.
El-Hadary is just six years younger, but for him – quite incredibly – it was only the beginning.
Two years later, he led the Pharaohs to another African title. This time, Drogba’s Ivory Coast were thrashed 4-1 in the semis, while Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon were left empty-handed in the final. El-Hadary kept a clean sheet again in the 1-0 win.
Essam El-Hadary celebrates after winning AFCON 2008.
Another two years passed, and Egypt won their third championship crown in a row. El-Hadary, imperious as ever, was especially brilliant in the final, when Ghana were beaten 1-0. Overall, the goalkeeper has played 300 minutes in African Cup of Nations finals, and he is yet to concede a single goal. That is an incredible record that is very unlikely to be matched, but can be extended on Sunday.
The very fact that El-Hadary got the chance to shine on the big stage again is remarkable, because he was 37 back in 2010. Egypt failed to qualify for three continental tournaments in a row thereafter, and any other goalkeeper would be expected to have retired since.
Not El-Hadary though, who kept changing teams and going strong at club level. Even after he was discarded by the national team in 2014, he never lost hope and did everything in his power to get back into the frame.
Hector Cuper, the Argentinian coach who took over at Egypt in 2015, didn’t include the veteran in his plans for over a year, but eventually had to change his mind.
By March 2016, El-Hadary was back in the squad. In June, he was on the field in the 2-0 win over Tanzania.
“Essam wasn’t on our shortlist, but his form for Wadi Degla forced us to call him,” goalkeeping coach Ahmed Nagy said.
It is surreal to even mention that El-Hadary’s coach at Wadi Degla these days is Mido, the hugely controversial former Ajax and Tottenham striker, who is more than a decade younger than his goalkeeper. Mido was a rather undisciplined footballer himself, but now he praises the veteran for his professionalism.
“He is the first to start the training and the last to finish it,” he reveals.
With such an attitude, it is a bit easier to understand why El-Hadary claims that he still feels like a 20-year-old. Age doesn’t matter at all, but experience does.
That is why he is so important in the dressing room for Egypt now, telling younger players about past wins in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Cuper didn’t intend to do the legend any favours, and Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shenawy was the preferred started at the current tournament.
And yet, El-Hadary’s story was always part of the script. Just 25 minutes into the first game against Mali, El-Shenawy got injured, and the 44-year-old took his place.
He duly excelled and kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw, and then did likewise in the wins over Uganda, Ghana and Morocco. Even Casillas applauded his big idol.
When he was finally beaten by Burkina Faso’s Aristide Bance’s in the semi-finals, El-Hadary’s incredible run in the African Cup of Nations stood at 681 minutes without conceding a goal, taking into account the games in 2010.
He dreamt of keeping clean sheets throughout the entire 2017 tournament and was very disappointed when the ball went in, especially because it meant that Egypt missed out on a win and had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
That was a blessing in disguise, though, because El-Hadary went on to become the hero in the penalty shoot-out. With Egypt trailing, he stopped the fourth Burkinese shot, taken by the 20-year-old keeper Kouakou Koffi, who wasn’t even born when El-Hadary made his debut for Egypt.
He then proceeded to block Chelsea’s Bertrand Traore’s effort as well, and celebrated wildly as Egypt qualified for the final.
On Sunday, Egypt will be hot favourites against Cameroon, and El-Hadary can become the oldest ever winner. By doing so, Egypt would book a place at the Confederations Cup in Russia this summer, but El-Hadary truly believes that he should return there a year later and play in the World Cup.
Thanks to his efforts, especially in the 2-0 win over Ghana, Egypt are very well positioned to qualify for their first World Cup since 1990, and he intends to be there at 45.
Cameroon will face Egypt in the African Nations Cup final after a 2-0 win over Ghana.
Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui cashed in on a defensive mix-up in the 72nd minute before Christian Bassogog scored a second on the break in stoppage-time at the Stade de Franceville.
Ghana’s goalkeeper Razak Brimah was principally at fault for the opening goal, coming for a free-kick but failing to collect as defender John Boye instead managed to cushion a header straight into the path of Ngadeu-Ngadjui, who smashed the ball into an empty net.
And Bassogog’s clincher ensured Hugo Broos’ team will bid for their country’s fifth title – and first since 2002 – on Sunday.
After a quiet start in which Cameroon pressed most, Ghana had gradually become more dominant but could not cash in their improvement.
Only Harrison Afful’s goal-line clearance stopped Cameroon taking the lead in the eighth minute with Adolphe Teikeu’s header from a corner, and Razak came to the rescue soon afterwards to keep out Robert Ndip Tambe’s left-foot shot on the turn.
New Swansea signing Jordan Ayew had the first clear-cut chance for Avram Grant’s men in the 40th minute, but his shot across goal from Christian Atsu’s through-ball went the wrong side of the far post.
Fabrice Ondoa had precious little to do in the Cameroon goal until early in the second half, when he had to be alert and brave to beat Andre Ayew to a low cross from his brother Jordan. Then just after the hour, Ondoa did even better to palm away Mubarak Wakaso’s fiercely-struck left-foot free-kick.
Andre Ayew wanted too many touches inside the six-yard box from a corner – and then in the 75th minute, his right-foot shot went wide.
In between, Razak’s costly flap made Ghana chase the game and they were picked off by Bassogog in added time.