In front of a full house at Cairo International Stadium, Egypt beat Côte d’Ivoire 2-1 after extra time on Friday in a thrilling U-23 Africa Cup of Nations final as the team not only lifted the Africa trophy but won the qualification ticket to the Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo next summer.
Karim Al-Iraqi opened the scoring for Egypt 37 minutes into the game, before Aboubakar Doumbia levelled with only one minute to go for the match, thus taking the game into extra time.
Both teams fought hard for the precious trophy. They had both secured the Tokyo Olympics the moment they won their semi-final matches and made it to the final.
In extra time both teams had their chances before Egypt’s skipper Ramadan Sobhi won it for the hosts in the 116th minute. Substitute Ahmed Rayan weaved past his marker to send a shot that rebounded from Cote d’Ivoire keeper Elizeir Tape, and Sobhi was the fastest to the ball to score the winner.
With the victory, the Olympic Pharaohs won their fifth game in as many matches. The Egyptians celebrated their first title in this third edition of the tournament.
Egypt joined Gabon (2011) and Nigeria (2015) in the list of honours of the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations champions.
Eight teams had battled it out in the two-week competition which took place in Cairo, but only three nations are going to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games as representatives of the African continent. The 16 matches played delivered to the world a taste of the talent in African youth football.
The Egyptian team not only celebrated winning the cup, but also clinched awards for best player, goalkeeper, top scorer and head coach
“This U-23 is one to remember in organisation and the results on and off the pitch,” CAF President Ahmad Ahmad, who attended the final, said.
“To the three qualified teams, Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa, I look forward to seeing you compete next summer in Tokyo. You will be great ambassadors for our continent.”
Despite being a youth competition, one of the recognisable features of the tournament was the striking attendance of matches at Cairo International Stadium. The tournament had started with a low spectator turn-out in the opening match at Cairo Stadium, home of Group A, and very few spectators went to Al-Salam Stadium that had hosted the Group B clashes. The second match for Egypt also saw modest attendance maybe because Egypt had won its opener with a lacklustre 1-0 win over Mali, a result that had Egyptian fans doubting the team’s abilities.
It was only when the young Pharaohs came from behind twice to beat Ghana 3-2 in an epic second group match that Egyptian fans donned the team’s fighting spirit and trekked to the stadium to set new attendance records in a youth competition. The semi-finals saw more than 60,000 inside the stadium and more than 10,000 fans -- with tickets -- denied entry, as gates were closed after the stadium reached full capacity.
In the final, a record 68,000 fans were in attendance, the highest number as far as the quadrennial championship is concerned. The tournament also drew huge numbers in TV viewership with millions across the continent and beyond watching budding talents in African football, thus, breaking more records.
Besides lifting the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations, champions Egypt also dominated the individual awards of the competition. Team captain Sobhi was the star of the tournament. The scorer of the winning goal was adjudged the Total Man of the Competition and the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. In addition he picked up the Total Man of the Match Award in the final.
Egypt forward Mustafa Mohamed emerged as the tournament’s top scorer with four goals in five matches whilst goalkeeper Mohamed Sobhi was named the best goalie for having the safest pair of hands.
With the team receiving the least yellow cards and no red cards, Egypt was named the Fair Play team.
CAF also announced the all-star team:
Goalkeeper: Mohamed Sobhi (Egypt)
Defenders: Tercious Malepe (South Africa), Kouadio Yves Dabila (Cote d’Ivoire), Ahmed Ramadan (Egypt), Silas Gnaka (Cote d’Ivoire).
Midfielders: Aboubakar Keita (Cote d’Ivoire), Ammar Omar (Egypt), Evans Mensah (Ghana).
Forwards: Ramadan Sobhi (Egypt), Mustafa Mohamed (Egypt), Youssouf Dao (Cote d’Ivoire).
Coach: Shawky Gharib (Egypt).
Before the final, the match for third place, which would eventually declare the winner of the third ticket to the Olympic Games went to South Africa. The match, South Africa vs Ghana, also had a high spectator attendance. Egyptians supported both teams and celebrated with the winner.
South Africa beat Ghana 6-5 on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
After a thrilling encounter that saw both sides performing high-level football, it was South Africa which had the last laugh when it secured its place in next summer’s Olympics for the third time in its history and second successive after Rio 2016. Ghana returned home with heads high after some breathtaking performances that gained people’s hearts, but luck wasn’t on their side at the end.
Ghana’s Habib Mohamed scored in his own net at the quarter hour mark to give South Africa an early lead. Habib tried to stop Luther Singh’s cross but he turned it into his net.
The South Africans had the upper hand through the opening half, but wasted many chances to double their lead as both sides went to the break with 1-0 lead for the Bafana side.
Ghana returned much stronger, and five minutes after the break it equalised. Evans Mensah received the ball outside the penalty area, and sent a curling shot to beat South Africa’s goalkeeper Mondli Mpoto.
But the South Africans responded immediately. Two minutes after the hour mark, the substitute Kamohelo Mhlatsi who barely spent a minute on the pitch restored their lead when he received Lyle Foster’s pass to send a scorcher inside the Ghanaian net.
And when it looked all set for South Africa’s win, Ghana scored a late equaliser. Evans Mensah rounded his marker and sent a cross that fell to substitute Samuel Obeng who made no mistake and restored parity yet again five minutes from time. The game was sent directly to a penalty shootout to determine the winner.
The shootout saw both sides missing twice before South Africa’s goalkeeper Mpoto saved Michael Agbekpornu’s kick to send his side to Tokyo.
With only eight months to go for the Tokyo Olympic Games, Egypt’s coach Shawki Gharib and his team have a lot to think about ahead of the games. One of the most important issues is whether Gharib would bring in three senior players, as is the Olympic rule.
Ever since Egypt won the semi-final and was confirmed as an Olympic qualifier, fans and media alike have been asking who should play if three over-aged players join the team. Mohamed Salah, Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet and Tarek Hamed are among the most prominent names. But others believe there is no need for the seniors and that this junior team should be the only representative at the games. No outsiders, it is said, should be allowed to go to the Olympics when they did nothing to deserve the trip.
Statements from Gharib and Sobhi have been vague. When asked by the media, they said it is still early to decide as the list of names is to be released in June 2020. “We don’t know yet,” Gharib said. “We might call up three players but the question is whether they would be willing to join the team and work together. And we might not call anybody at all and go with the same team which has been together for a long time now.”
Sobhi’s comments were described as tough by some media outlets which said that the team captain was not in favour of the idea, plus the fact that a senior joining the team could mean him losing the captain’s badge. “People are naming the three senior players to join us from now. You are ignoring the role of 21 players who have been with the team and fighting so hard until achieving this ultimate goal. Bringing in three seniors means kicking out three youngsters from the team. Anyway, it is still early,” Sobhi said.
There’s still time to decide. But it is not an easy decision and the signs show that this issue will cast a shadow over and represent a huge challenge to the Olympic team.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.