Cameroon won their fifth Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Sunday night, beating Egypt 2-1 in a thrilling final.
Hugo Broos’s young, exuberant team had danced and sung their way into the Stade de l’Amitie before the game, all relaxed smiles and solidarity. They then danced their way out again after a sensational Vincent Aboubakar goal three minutes from time proved the winner.
Although major favourites in the past, the Indomitable Lions were underdogs in this tournament. Unheralded and many hitherto unknown, this Cameroon side surprised even itself by reaching the final, sending Senegal and Ghana home along the way.
Eight of Broos’ original squad of 35 didn’t even choose to attend. The nucleus that remained was almost entirely untested. The 21-year-old goalkeeper Fabrice Ondoa, who made the crucial penalty save from Sadio Mane in the quarter-final, has yet to appear for Sevilla’s B side in Spain this season. Christian Bassogog, who has shone on the right-wing, plays in Denmark for AaB. Only Benjamin Moukandjo survives from the failed 2014 World Cup campaign.
Egypt, meanwhile, arrived at the final with a series of narrow, unconvincing victories, including putting unfortunate Burkina Faso out on penalties in the semi-final match. In Roma forward Mohamed Salah they had the tournament’s outstanding individual, while 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam Elhadary was an ongoing symbol of the Pharoahs’ former status.
There was no doubt whose fans were dominating the packed stands. Not only were thousands of Cameroonian expatriates continuing to follow their team but busloads crossed the land border for the final. The biggest cheer of the opening ceremony inevitably went to Charlotte Dipanda, flown in to perform “Elle n’a pas vu”.
What the crowd saw next was perhaps the best Afcon final in two decades. Egypt, reinforced by the return of Mohamed Elneny in the centre of midfield, looked comfortable for long periods of the opening exchanges. Their first chance of the half came after only one minute when Salah released Abdallah Said whose low struck was saved by Ondoa.
The same pattern emerged 20 minutes later when Egypt took the lead. Salah again drifted behind the left-back and threaded a simple pass to the onrushing Elneny. The Arsenal midfielder struck his shot high past Ondoa at his near post.
With the Egypt defence marshalled by the impressive Ahmed Hegazy, the scene seemed to be set for a long Cameroon chase to parity.
Broos brought on the more experienced Aboubakr at half-time to lead the line, but typically, it was Bassagog who eventually dragged his team forward. On the hour he ran 60 yards up the pitch, past four Egyptian players to win a corner. From the resulting interchange, Moukandjo whipped the cross which substitute defender Nicolas Nkoulou rose magnificently to head home at the backpost.
Suddenly it was Cameroon’s game to win as both sides opened up, the momentum swinging one way, then the other.
In the 88th minute, and with extra-time looming, Aboubakar controlled a long ball with his chest, flicked the ball over Egypt defender Ali Gabr in the very next touch and then swept a superb strike across Elhadary.
The Beskitas striker raced over to the VIP box to celebrate with Samuel Eto’o. A tired Egypt side hardly mustered a response before the final whistle blew. Cameroon had their first African title since 2002.
For Broos, much criticised by the Cameroon press since taking over, the result was vindication for his new approach. “It’s true when I first took over I found a group of players who were old and not motivated. And I put new players in. Today we have a team. Still it’s not at the highest level. We need to be much better – but it’s a beginning.”