It was a dreadful final to end a largely dreadful tournament but in the end it came down to a moment of the purest drama and the great redemption of Sadio Mané. He had missed a penalty in normal time. Senegal had wasted chance after chance. They had twice lost in finals before. Egypt are the kings of penalties. They had won their last six shootouts and had played for penalties from the off. But Mané, unexpectedly, was left with a penalty to win it.
It was not just that Abou Gabal had saved his earlier penalty, apparently after Mohamed Salah, Mané’s Liverpool teammate, had told him which way to dive. Mané had also missed against Kenya and Uganda in 2019 and, more consequently, the decisive kick in the quarter-final shootout against Cameroon in the quarter-final in 2017. And Abou Gabal had already saved five penalties in the tournament.
Mané took a long run-up and, with a great cathartic release, drilled his shot low and extremely hard to his left. Abou Gabal could not get down and Senegal, at last, had their first Cup of Nations triumph. Mané then embarked on a solo lap of honour, side-skipping delightedly with a Senegalese flag draped over his shoulders.
It turns out there is a limit to what can be achieved by anti-football. Senegal, as Cameroon had in the semi final, occasionally threatened to get in behind the Egyptian full-backs, which brought the early penalty as Saliou Ciss was chopped down by Mohamed Abdelmonem. Too often when they did, though, the crossing and the decision-making was poor. And like Cameroon, they soon found themselves frustrated by Egypt’s spoiling, the feigning of injury, the long debates after every decision.
Senegal must bear their share of the blame. They were not good enough to break Egypt down and allowed themselves to be dragged into the gamesmanship, playing far too slowly, allowing Egypt time to regroup – but at least there were occasions when they tried to play. And it is hard to play when there are 52 fouls in the game, when the ball is in play for only 40 minutes and 26 seconds of normal time – more than a fifth less than is usual.
For that the South African referee, Victor Gomes, must take responsibility. He did not crack down on cynical fouling, seemed reluctant to deploy his yellow card and, disgracefully, played only five minutes of added time across two halves of normal time. Little wonder Egypt have so little time for the Gambian official Bakary Gassama, who has been the only official in this tournament prepared to stand up to them. Mané, too, it should be said, could easily have seen a second yellow card when he appeared to dive but by then Gomes seemed to have given up.
What makes it baffling is that Egypt are clearly a decent side. Perhaps they are not the same calibre as the team that won three Cups of Nations in a row between 2006 and 2010: Salah aside, there is nobody of the class of Ahmed Hassan, nobody with the drive of Mohamed Hosny or the invention of Mohamed Abou Treika, but they have shown in flashes that they are better than this. They could offer more than just spoiling and giving it to Salah, and yet they did not at any point in the tournament. It was in keeping with their general gracelessness that they left the pitch before Senegal were presented with their medals.
The reaction of Egyptians on social media would suggest they are not bothered by how their side plays but will their fans really look back at videos of this tournament to revel in their progress? Look, there’s Salah arguing with the referee! Celebrate Abou Gabal taking an age of a goal-kick! Goggle at Ahmed Abou El Fotouh committing a cynical foul! Rejoice in Abou Gabal receiving treatment! Welcome to the shithouse of fun!