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Pharaohs retain African crown

By Simon Hooper for CNN

(CNN) — Egypt’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon in Sunday’s final of the African Nations Cup was loaded with personal milestones, with the north Africans’ captain, Ahmed Hassan, becoming the first player to win the title three times and their coach, Hassan Shahata, becoming only the second coach to win back-to-back editions of the tournament.

But the Pharaohs’ success was all about team effort. The Egyptians’ achievement in collecting a record sixth African continental title rested not on the talents of one player in any one game but on the consistency of their collective performances through six games and three weeks in Ghana.

Ironically for a competition that has produced some thrilling high-scoring contests, Sunday’s final played out as a dense tactical affair in which Cameroon’s German coach Otto Pfeister had understandably sent his side out to stop Egypt’s highly potent counter-attacking game while leaving Samuel Eto’o to labor alone up front in search of a goal.

Ultimately it took a mistake from the Indomitable Lions’ veteran captain, Rigobert Song, to break the deadlock, though not without the considerable efforts of the energetic Mohamed Zidan, one of the stars of the tournament, who had tirelessly harried the unfortunate Song and then had the presence of mind to square a pass for Mohamed Aboutrika to place the ball into the bottom corner for his fourth goal of the campaign.

We are delighted to win. It’s a great achievement, said Aboutrika. It is a great feeling to score for the country, but it’s not about me scoring goals but it’s about all the players and the 80 million people supporting us back home. It’s an amazing feeling to win the tournament away from home. It’s even better to win it two times in a row. It’s one of the greatest days of my life.

Egypt have won the title in west Africa before — in Burkina Faso in 1998 — but most had written off the defending champions’ chances in the build-up to the tournament, suggesting that their victory two years ago had been aided by home advantage and that they would not travel well.

But the Egyptians put paid to that theory in the semifinals with a stunning 4-1 win over Ivory Coast in which they out-thought, out-fought, out-passed and out-scored a team widely considered the strongest in African football.

Ghana was always going to be difficult with so many strong sub-Saharan teams, but we did well, said coach Shahata. We tried to take the game with good football, for Egypt and for the fans, and it proved enough to win.

Ultimately, Egypt had several advantages which gave them an edge over their rivals. In Essam Al Hadari they had the tournament’s most consistent and experienced goalkeeper, while in Hosni Abd Rabou, Aboutrika and Amr Zaki they had three players in irresistable goalscoring form, with each finding the net four times.

But Egypt also benefited from drawing most of their squad from the country’s domestic league, allowing for greater harmony, better organization and a more intense team spirit than other African nations dependent on more dispersed European-based players were able to achieve.

With much of the squad also playing for the country’s big three clubs, Al-Ahly, Zamalek and Ismailia, Egyptian football has also benefited from the expansion of African club football.

The fact that most of their players have been in regular action against opposition from across the continent in the Champions League can only have benefited Egypt’s preparations for Ghana.

The test now for Egypt will be to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. Despite being the most successful side in African continental competition, the Pharaohs have surprisingly managed that just once in modern times, going out in the first round in Italy in 1990. By contrast, Cameroon have qualified five times.

By then of course, Egypt should also have had the chance to defend their continental title in Angola earlier in the year, with participation in both tournaments decided by a single series of qualifiers.

But even a hat-trick of successes in that tournament would inevitably leave Egyptians feeling hollow if their side were again to miss out on the year’s main event next door. E-mail to a friend

Pharaohs retain African crown – found here.

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February 11, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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