In the end, glory went to Senegal, who defeated Egypt 4-2 in a penalty shootout to win the African Cup of Nations for the first time on Sunday.
Here are five things Arab News learned from a final that ended 0-0 after two hours but was not short on narrative and drama.
1. It was fitting that Mane scored the winning goal
It can’t have been easy for Sadio Mane. If the Liverpool star had scored the early penalty, then Senegal would likely have won in normal time. And it can’t have been easy to shrug off such a miss for the almost two hours of football that followed.
Everyone knows that you don’t get many chances against Egypt, and that is what happened. Mane did not have his best game, but he still worked hard for the team. And at the end of the shootout, there he was walking up to take the final penalty with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders knowing that a goal would mean everything.
Faced with the same goalkeeper Gabaski, it could easily have been a repeat of the events of much earlier in the game, but the Liverpool star fired home the perfect penalty. His first one had been all power but fairly central. His second was still powerful but right in the bottom corner, and it was unstoppable. It took nerves of steel and was quite a story.
2. More frustration for Salah
There has been a lot said and written about the Liverpool star and his performances during the tournament. Millions of fans at home and more around the world were watching and waiting for Mohamed Salah to catch fire and show the form in Africa that made him one of the most feared attackers in the world.
It didn’t happen, the Morocco game apart when he scored one and made the other. Egypt’s style is not one that creates many chances, and throughout the tournament, the 29-year-old was marshaled closely and given no space or time. Defenders seemed to relish the chance to test themselves against Salah, and so it was the same in the final.
The fact that the Egyptian King had to watch clubmate Mane score the winning penalty in the knowledge that he would not get to take his own kick seemed to sum up Salah’s tournament. Leaving the main man to take number five is always a gamble and with two of the first four missed, this time, it did not pay off.
3. Egypt’s loss won’t be internationally mourned
It is safe to say that Egypt have not been the neutral’s favorite in this tournament, and most will be happy with Senegal’s win. The Pharaohs have been machine-like in terms of defending at least. After conceding to Nigeria in the opening game, they conceded just one goal in the next 720 minutes of football.
Every team, no matter who they were and how they played, struggled against the North Africans. The organization, the discipline, the shape, the concentration and the sheer hard work have been worthy of praise, even if that praise has not always been forthcoming from those who would prefer to see goals, drama and action.
Coach Carlos Queiroz will not care about that, but he may wonder if the outcome would have been different had Egypt been a little more adventurous.
4. Gabaski will never be forgotten
It was almost a fairy tale. The tournament started with Mohamed Abou Gabal, now known to the world as Gabaski, as a second-choice goalkeeper over 30 years old who had played fewer than a handful of games for his country until an early injury to main man Mohamed Elshenawy in the first game of the knockout stage changed everything.
This substitute goalkeeper turned out to be a colossus. His penalty save in the seventh minute from Mane was his fourth spot-kick stop in the tournament — not bad for a player who himself had to go off in extra-time of the quarterfinal win over Morocco and has been feeling the effects of the groin injury ever since. Despite that, he made a number of great stops. In the shootout, he made save number five from the spot and he got close to all the kicks but in the end, he was on the losing side.
The fact that he received the Man of the Match award says it all. It is rare indeed in a final for a member of the losing team to get that prize, but nobody would dispute that the Zamalek man deserved it.
5. Egypt have a chance to serve some red-hot revenge
The Egyptian players were understandably devastated at the end, and many were in tears. They may have won the tournament seven times, but the last triumph came back in 2010. Players such as Salah who have won huge prizes in Europe are not going to get many more chances to win with their country.
That said, Egypt have a great chance to bounce back as soon as next month. The same two teams will meet in the final African playoffs for a place at the World Cup. It is debatable whether qualifying for Qatar will make up for losing a continental final. What is for sure, however, is that losing to Senegal again and sitting at home later this year when the rest of the world goes to Qatar would be really painful. In terms of big games this year, it is Senegal 1, Egypt 0. There is a chance to make it 1-1.