Thursday 16 February 2017, 14:04

Pharaohs rise again after impressive AFCON

Egypt's march to the final of the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) provided a welcome boost to the country’s football after some very lean years. Their AFCON exploits also secured the country a place in the top 25 of February’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where their current position of 23 makes them the highest ranked CAF team.

Egypt had failed to qualify for the three editions that followed their last AFCON triumph in 2010, but Hector Cuper's squad made no mistake in the qualifiers this year after winning a Group G that also contained Nigeria, Tanzania and Chad. The draw for Gabon 2017 then pitted them against Ghana, Mali and Uganda in a tough Group D.

And while Ghana, AFCON finalists two years ago, were considered favourites, the Pharaohs defied all expectations by winning the group. They kicked off their campaign in Gabon with a draw against Mali before successive 1-0 victories over Uganda and Ghana ensured top spot in their section. Their win against Ghana at the group stage, which brought them more than 1100 points, helped them ascend the ranking ladder, while the triumph over Uganda netted them another 971 points.

After qualifying for the quarter-finals, the Pharaohs then ran up against Morocco, who themselves had high hopes after missing out on the 2015 edition. However, a late goal from Mahmoud Kahraba gave Egypt the narrowest of victories and a further push up the standings courtesy of the almost 1100 points garnered.

In their semi-final against Burkina Faso, though, Egypt’s run of victories came to a halt. With the game tied 1-1 after extra time, veteran Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El Hadary emerged as the hero of the shoot-out after his save of Bertrand Traore's spot-kick stamped his side’s passage to the final.

In fact, El Hadary’s historic AFCON participation only came about after first-choice keeper Ahmed el Shenawy was injured in the opening match against Mali. El Hadary immediately stepped in, becoming the oldest player at AFCON 2017 in what was his seventh participation in this tournament.

"I’ve achieved a lot at club and national level over the years, but as a player you’ve always got to set ambitious new objectives for yourself," El Hadary told in an exclusive statement. "I wanted to play in the Cup of Nations for a seventh time and today it’s come to pass."

Still hopeful As their team advanced through the continental championship, Egypt’s fans became increasingly hopeful that their heroes might return to Cairo with an eighth African title. But Cameroon had other ideas, snatching the winning goal in the dying minutes of the final to deny the Pharaohs and their Argentinian coach the silverware.

The loss was particularly painful for the coach, who was desperate for a major title after losing two successive UEFA Champions League finals while in charge of Valencia. "We were hoping to bring happiness to the Egyptian people," the 61-year old said after the disappointing loss to Cameroon. "But that’s football; one team has to win and one has to lose."

Cuper, who also finished runner-up in Italy’s Serie A during his time as Inter Milan coach, added: "Personally, I’m sad because I lost yet another final. But I’m sadder because I could not make the Egyptian fans happy, as they were expecting an eighth African title. I know how much Egyptians love football, and I apologized to them for this loss."

In spite of the defeat, the coach will have learned much from his side’s AFCON adventure and will be looking to build on that achievement when the CAF qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ resume this year. After two games, Egypt currently lead Group E, where Ghana, Uganda and Congo provide the opposition.

Their home and away fixtures against Uganda in August and September of this year will be pivotal to Egypt’s aspirations of reaching the World Cup, a feat they have not managed since taking part in Italy 1990.

For his part, Cuper insisted Egypt can look forward to a better future, saying: "We unveiled a new generation in terms of Egyptian football. We have important games to come as part of World Cup qualifying, and so preparations must start as of now."

If Cuper and the Pharaohs can continue in the same vein, especially on the road to Russia 2018, then Egyptian football could soon be enjoying the glory days again.