/ 3 February 2017

Afcon finalists prove their worth

Key players: Burkinabé midfielder Alain Traore
Key players: Burkinabé midfielder Alain Traore

Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary has inscribed his name on the hearts of millions of his compatriots — and in bold, gold letters. The legendary shot stopper continues to confound critics with his agility, despite nearing an age at which most of his colleagues are preparing for a pension.

At 44, El-Hadary still throws himself around the field like a 17-year-old but, most of all, he has shut out some of the most prolific strikers at this year’s African Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Gabon, keeping clean sheets since the beginning of the tournament to lead his country to the semifinals.

“I have worked really hard to keep in shape,” said El-Hadary. The veteran player seemed far from even thinking of retiring, shortly after Egypt had narrowly edged out rivals Morocco 1-0 to advance to the semifinals.

“I always have to show calmness and guide the other younger members of the team through the times when we get to be under pressure as a team. I know a lot of people are talking about my age and records but I play for the team. Right now, I am working towards Egypt winning the trophy.”

Football has suffered a great deal in Egypt since the Arab Spring erupted across the northern part of the continent. In Egypt, in particular, the domestic league was suspended because the government suspected that Al Ahly supporters, called the Ultras, were behind pockets of violence that undermined the state.

The suspension of football has resulted in the Egyptian national team failing to qualify for Africa’s premier national competition and their top club sides — Zamalek and Al Ahly — dominant forces in pan-African club competitions, have become a shadow of their former glory.

But, this year, the Egyptians, who have won Afcon seven times, more than any other country, returned to the summit of African football. The Pharaohs not only overshadowed Ghana in their last group match but edged out rivals Morocco in the quarterfinals to make their intentions clear.

They have regained their swagger and confidence, which borders on arrogance. They are business-like, focused and have mastered the ability to keep plugging away without losing patience until the right moment comes and allows them to strike.

This Egyptian side’s success has been built on solid defending with the well-drilled team hardly ever losing shape at the back and, likemost traditional teams, building their play from the back.

For keeper El-Hadary, this has been key to helping the veteran not to concede a goal during the tournament.

But, for many, the most impressive team has been Burkina Faso, who have been maturing impressively over the past few years and reached the finals of the 2013 Afcon held in South Africa, where they were unfortunate to lose to Nigeria.

The Burkinabé have kept most of the squad that took them to the 2013 final and have become even more impressive, combining sheer physical strength with their natural skills to run teams off the park. They are fearless and display an incredible mental strength to stay focused until the last minute.

The Stallions display an uninhibited, fresh style with talismanic Bertrand Traoré allowed the freedom of the field to wreak havoc, and coach Paulo Duarte safe in the knowledge that he has sufficient cover should the playmaker lose the ball.

Traore derives a lot of pleasure from running at defenders. He ­disclosed that he knows defenders hate a player who runs directly at them and he uses this strategy to unsettle them.

And, should you trip him in desperation or hold him back, he will more than likely make you pay from the resultant spot kick.

Then, of course, there is the blond, mop-haired Aristides Bancé, who had a short spell at Chippa United. He has become the Stallions’ impact player in this tournament. Against Tunisia, his sheer strength against a resolute defence in the quarterfinals had to be seen to be believed.

And Ghana? The Black Stars have flattered to deceive and, in 35 years, have failed to reclaim the title they won an impressive four times since the early 1960s. The last time they lifted the African holy grail was in 1982.

But take a look at this Ghana team and you cannot help but be impressed by the quality at their disposal. Abedi Pele’s sons, Jordan and Dede Ayew, are stand-out performers and both feature in different English premiership teams.

Jordan, in particular, has been much maligned in Ghana, with his critics claiming he is only in the team on the strength of his legendary father’s name. But the youngster proved in emphatic fashion against the Democratic Republic of the Congo that he deserved to wear the national jersey.

Receiving a defence-splitting pass, Jordan effortlessly glided past the panicking Democratic Republic of Congo defence, then sweetly picked his spot and planted the ball into the far corner to break the hearts of the Central African country. Moments later, his older brother killed off the game from the penalty spot.

There are other brilliant performers, such as Christian Atsu and Emmanuel Badu, who keep things tight in the middle to enable the Ayew brothers to go at the opposition. Skipper Asamoah Gyan has not played too big a part because of niggling injuries but he remains an influential figure.

You also have to give credit to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. Faced with a mass withdrawal of key players, coach Hugo Broos could have thrown his hands in the air and wailed about sabotage. Instead, he assembled the young players at his disposal and worked with them.

Such has been their impact that probably all the eight senior players who withdrew must be kicking themselves with envy. Against the most formidable of odds, this rag-tag army Broos has assembled have deservedly battled their way into the last four of the tournament.

Few would have fancied them against the rampaging Senegal and, for most of the time, they were under the cosh. But, after a scoreless 120 minutes, the young bucks managed to edge out their opponents with a penalty shoot-out.

Critical to this team is Vincent Aboubakar, who does not get much game time these days. Broos uses him as an impact player off the bench and his reading of the game is impeccable and his bravery without question.

Afcon comes to an end this weekend and preparations for Cameroon 2019 are scheduled to start in March. But there have certainly been ­memorable moments in Gabon to ensure that the last four truly deserve their places.