Egypt has reached the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final after a 4-3 penalty shoot-out win over brave Burkina Faso on Wednesday night.
It was the cruellest of blows to Les Étalons who were much the better side throughout the 120 minutes of open play, which ended in a 1-1 draw, and led the penalty shoot-out after Kouakou Koffi’s low, miraculous diving save from Abdallah Bekhit.
But 44-year-old Egyptian keeper Essam Elhadari, who has won four Afcon titles, made two exceptional saves himself, first from Koffi and then from Bertrand Traore, the Chelsea winger who had done so much to bring Burkina Faso to the last four.
Egypt's seven-year absence from the competition was a time of social unrest with severe consequences for the country's domestic football. The international team's struggles began with the cancellation of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 league seasons, after the Port Said stadium disaster and the 2013 coup d’etat. The league had already been suspended for almost three months in early 2011. Players without regular games could not produce their best form for the national team.
But the Pharoahs have returned to the Afcon fray with the old resilience, if not the style, intact.
Veteran Elhadari was there for the former Afcon glories between 2006 and 2010. He ended the match on his knees in celebration and with the familiar beaming smile. But this is a new, more limited, generation. Mohamed Aboutrika is long gone and manager Hector Cuper has been unapologetic in putting pragmatism first, enraging the Egyptian press thirsting for the old swaggering dominance.
“Burkina Faso are faster and fitter than us,” Cuper said afterwards. “They were aggressive, they were better than us for most of the game and we looked tired. Once we got to extra-time, our aim was to get to penalties because anything can happen then.”
A vibrant, athletic Burkina Faso indeed dominated possession and territory for the first hour of the semi-final. Egypt simply couldn’t match the mobility of Niguimbe Nakoulma and Bertrand Traore, while Charles Kabore pulled the strings from the back of midfield.
But there was still a creeping sense that the Pharoah’s chance would come. Their strategy relies on the sublime skills of Mohamed Salah to grab opportunities when they arise. It was, inevitably, the Roma forward who provided the goal, a sumptuous curler with his left boot from 20 yards on the hour.
As the stadium half-settled back for a 1-0 result, the Burkinabes refused to give in, none more so than Aristine Bance, the hero of the quarter-final making his first start of the tournament. Within 5 minutes of Salah’s goal, Bance had one of his own. Charles Kabore’s looping cross seemed to invite a header but Bance brought the ball down in the box and rifled low past Elhadary.
There was little change to the overall pattern in extra-time, Egypt retreating and Burkina Faso pushing, always on the edge of real menace without creating a clear-cut chance.
Then came penalties and the Elhadary’s latest, and perhaps greatest, moment.
Burkina Faso manager Paolo Duarte struggled to hide his disappointment. “It’s good that Egypt are back on the continental stage but we had the skill and the stamina to win this. And if you ask anyone who should have won this game, they would have to say us.”
Egypt face Cameroon or Ghana in Sunday’s final.