For Liverpool fans, the Africa Cup of Nations (AfCON) final on Sunday 6 February 2022, was a rare opportunity to see two of the club’s best players face off against each other: Mo Salah (Team Egypt) vs. Sadio Mané (Team Senegal). Senegal was in its second successive AfCON final (and third overall) and searching for their first ever AfCON title. Other than Mané, the Senegal team included other top international players such as Edouard Mendy (Chelsea goalkeeper), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Idrissa Gana Gueye (Paris Saint-Germain), Nampalys Mendy (Leicester City), Cheikhou Kouyaté (Crystal Palace) and Bouna Junior Sarr (Bayern Munich). In contrast, the Egyptian team was made up of mostly local club players from Zamalek and Al Ahly, with the only international players being Salah, Mohamed Naser Elsayed Elneny (Arsenal), Omar Khaled Mohamed Marmoush (VfB Stuttgart) and Mostafa Mohamed Ahmed Abdallah (Turkish club Galatasaray). On paper, Senegal was the better team and played well offensively but Egypt was a better coordinated team and defended better.
The high stakes match started in dramatic fashion when Mané was brought down in the penalty box in the fourth minute by Egyptian defender, Mohamed Abdelmoneim. No Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was required to confirm the penalty to Senegal. It took nearly 3 mins between the incident and when the penalty was taken, during which time Salah advised Egyptian goalkeeper, Mohamed Abou Gabal aka Gabaski, on how best to save the Mané penalty. The moment took on a comical turn when Mané joined the pair to confirm that he would shoot right. Twitter lit up with some calling Salah a snitch for selling out his teammate and others predicting that Mané, who missed a penalty during the 2019 AfCON final against Algeria, would miss yet again. Mané kicked a powerful shot straight into the hands of Gabaski much to the despair of the Senegal fans an amusement of the Twitter critics.
After an entertaining first half that was dominated by Senegal, the second half saw the Pharaohs turn the tide and play with the same resilience that saw them bounce back from an opening match defeat against Nigeria. The match went to extra time – the fourth time Egypt had failed to clinch the deal in 90 minutes. As the time ticked away, the nail-biting final saw both teams make shots on goal which were saved by Gabaski, who we predict will be leaving Zamalek in the next few months for an international club, and Mendy, who showed why he is Chelsea’s number one goalkeeper. Mané, who had already received a yellow card, was lucky not to be sent off for a desperate dive in a match that had at least 50 fouls.
In the end the match had to be decided by penalties after both teams failed to score in extra time. Egypt missed their second penalty, and the fourth penalty was saved by Mendy. Senegal missed their third penalty. Mané wanted to redeem himself by taking the fifth and final penalty which he scored as the stadium erupted in jubilation.
As the curtain closed at the Olembé stadium, fans and journalists paid tribute to the gracious hosts, Cameroon, for putting on a spectacular show and raising the bar for African football tournaments. Cameroon lost the semi-final match to Egypt and snatched the bronze medal on Saturday 5 February when they came from two goals down to level with Burkina Faso (3-3) and win on penalties. The Cameroon Captain, Vincent Aboubakar scored eight goals – the second highest at any AfCON tournament – and won the AfCON Umbro Golden Boot. Mendy won the continental best goalkeeper award while Mané was named man of the tournament.
The next AfCON will be held in Côte d’Ivoire from 23 June to 23 July 2023. Côte d’Ivoire beat out rival bids from Egypt, Guinea, and Zambia to host the 34th edition of Africa’s biggest sporting event. The tournament will shift from the usual schedule in January to the European summer months, to ensure that international players are not conflicted with club duties. The English Premier League lost 40 players during AfCON, much to the frustration of managers at clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester City and Liverpool. There will no such reservations going forward. So will we see you in Côte d’Ivoire next year?