Egypt: The Unsurprising Surprise

It’s the second time in a row and the third time in a decade that Egypt have won the African Nations Cup — yet to aficionados of football in the Northern Hemisphere, it still came as a something of a shock.

Most of the Egyptians still ply their trade in their home country, which offers relative riches compared to other domestic African leagues, and are thus lesser known than those lighting up the Premier League or La Liga stocking the other tournament favourites teams. This proved to be very important in both Egypt’s victory march and our perception of it (I know many underestimated Egypt as I did: Brian has also confessed to this at the Run of Play).

Egypt Victorious

The feeling at the start of the tournament seemed to be that either the hosts Ghana, girded with home advantage and the titan known as Michael Essien, or Ivory Coast, with the (real) African Player of the Year Didier Drogba, would take the title. There was much talk about how many Europe-based players there were this time, and we settled back to watch these superstars duke it out.

The fact that Egypt have yet to repeat their African success on the world stage also contributes to our ignorance of their quality, but the truth is they deservedly won the African title just two years ago, and now have a record six continental titles.

Even come the final, after Cameroon had dispatched the hosts and Egypt had beaten the vaunted Ivorians, it was felt that Samuel Eto’o and company would hold off Egypt’s title defense.

But Egypt thoroughly deserved their 1-0 win today. Where Egypt were compact, composed and creative, Cameroon were the reverse, looking as if they’d just met each other at kick-off and with a singular strategy to funnel the ball up the middle as quickly as possible to their superstar striker, isolated and triple-man-marked.

I think, when assessing Egypt, many European-orientated observers forgot three things:

1) The Egyptians were always liable to be hungrier for success. They weren’t dealing with journeys as tiring, with as much media pressure from around the world, or with big name club managers bitching about the tournament and concerns about wearing themselves out for the Premier League title race (Didier Drogba, anyone?).

2) Many of them play for the same clubs in the Egyptian League, so they know each other intimately as both players and people. Today, Cameroon’s players seemed to pass the ball with absolutely no idea whether the receiving player was going to make the run into the space they played it into or not. And usually not. Egypt functioned as a unit, also reflecting a traditional difference between West and North African football we oft-forget when we lump all African football into one style.

3) Egyptian domestic football is better than it is usually credited for. They are used to large crowds, pressure and big tournaments. Egypt’s El-Ahly have reached three successive African Champions League finals. Whereas many other African nations rely on several star players to draw, Egypt had less stellar power but more strength in depth, whoever was on the field. Certainly, Egypt had some great individual performances — my man of the match today was their impressive and experienced captain, Ahmed Hassan — but they didn’t suffer in the way Ghana did when forced to redeploy Michael Essien to defence, or over-rely on Eto’o, as Cameroon did today.

All in all, Egypt were a deserved winner, and gave us a salutary reminder that quality footballers are in abundance outside Europe’s top leagues.

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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