The 2017 African Nations Cup final in Libreville on Sunday pits Egypt’s technical excellence against the all-action, unlikely heroes of Cameroon in a fixture to decide the continent’s new kings.
Egypt are seeking to extend to eight their record of winning the most Nations Cup finals, while Cameroon take aim at a fifth title, and a first in 15 years.
Neither side were pre-tournament favourites, with Egypt contesting their first Nations Cup for seven years and Cameroon fielding a side of young, inexperienced players, many of whom are in Gabon only because eight first-team regulars withdrew before the competition started.
But both have written their own remarkable stories to get this far, in narratives that will long be remembered.
The North African side have relied on the excellence of 44-year-old goalkeeper Essem El Hadary, the oldest player in Nations Cup history, who has made crucial saves, including in the semifinal penalty shoot-out victory over Ghana.
Cameroon have defied the odds with a team mocked as a “B’ side before the tournament began, but which has shown tremendous spirit, even in the face a dispute over bonuses with their own federation.
Both were arguably second best in their quarterfinal and semifinal matches, but found a way to win despite coming under enormous pressure.
That Cameroon kept a clean-sheet against both pre-tournament favourites Senegal and Ghana is remarkable. Their goalkeeper, Fabrice Ondoa, is in great form and his saves – and a large slice of luck – have got them this far. Few could begrudge them their place in the final.
Egypt have been compact, organised and have kept their attacking ambition in check, being a side that is difficult to beat rather than one which goes for the jugular. Finding a way to get through them will be a mighty challenge for the Indomitable Lions.
“In the 29 years I’ve been a coach I’ve never worked with a group like this,” Cameroon’s Belgian coach, Hugo Broos said. “It’s a fantastic group of players both on and off the field and they deserve the final. We’ve shown from the start that we are getting better but it’s still a dream that we’ve got to the final.”
Egypt’s resurgence has come via the cautious approach of their Argentine coach Hector Cuper, who does not have a great record in final matches, having twice lost the UEFA Champions League decider among others.
That, he feels, is about to change, such is his confidence The Pharaohs will beat Cameroon.
“Most often I am not lucky when it comes to final matches, but I feel optimistic for the coming final with Egypt,” Cuper said.
If you are looking to history for pointers, it favours Egypt. They have twice beaten Cameroon in the Nations Cup final, a 1-0 success in 2008 and a 5-4 victory on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the 1986 decider.
In all matches played between the sides, Egypt have 13 wins to five for Cameroon, with seven games drawn. The Indomitable Lions’ last success was a 1-0 win over Egypt in the Nations Cup quarterfinals in 2002 on their way to lifting the trophy.