In the late 2000s, Egypt pulled off a spectacular, never-before-seen Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) three-peat.
That legendary side won the competition on three different continental sub-regions, first at home (North Africa) in 2006, and then in Ghana (West Africa) and finally Angola (Southern Africa). They did not lose a single game en route to any of those triumphs, and only once did they require a penalty shoot-out in nine knockout matches: in the first final against Cote d’Ivoire.
For all intents and purposes then, a great side.
The Port Said riot in 2012 is generally acknowledged as the point by which Egypt’s African dominance came to an end, but in truth the slide had already begun before that. The Pharaohs had failed to qualify for the 2012 AFCON, finishing dead last in a group featuring Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone, and coach Hassan Shehata had stepped down in the wake of that indignity.
As such, the 2010 AFCON final was, in hindsight, the swan song for that golden era, and it is that game against Ghana that this piece will take a look at.
Milovan Rajevac’s Ghana squad was heavily experimental coming into the tournament. It was partly deliberate – the integration of the group that had won the 2009 FIFA Under-20 World Cup was part of a plan to graft some youth onto an experienced spine – but there were also injury-related absences.
Chelsea star Michael Essien had been battling long-standing injury problems, and barely featured at this AFCON despite being a part of the squad. Stephen Appiah and John Mensah, however, were less fortunate; ironically, they both would go on to make Ghana’s 2010 World Cup selection, while Essien missed out.
That left something of a leadership vacuum. Those three were, hierarchically, the captains of the national team. However, with Sulley Muntari’s absence – the legacy of yet another disciplinary indiscretion – the loss of technical nous was just as worrying.
The result was stodgy progress through the competition. Following CAF’s tactless disqualification of Togo in the wake of the Cabinda bus attack, Ghana came through essentially a qualification play-off match against Burkina Faso with a first of three straight 1-0 wins.
They were particularly fortunate to overcome the hosts in the quarter-finals, as Manucho missed a host of chances, although they were rather more composed in dispatching regional rivals Nigeria for the second edition running in the semi-finals.
Three consecutive clean sheets then, but crucially only four goals scored in four games coming into the final; if Ghana needed to go in search of a goal at any point, it was obvious they would be in some trouble.
The Pharaohs’ progress was a lot more eye-catching, but while they were still clearly the best side on the continent, they had gotten a little long in the tooth.
The starting XI for this final had an average age of 28.9 years; not too bad on first inspection, but crucially the higher end of the distribution was populated by some of the more key performers – influential captain Ahmed Hassan and defensive rock Wael Gomaa were both 34, goalkeeper Essam El Hadary was 37, Hany Said was 29 and Sayed Moawad, who had taken over the left-back position from Mohamed Abdelwahab following the latter’s unfortunate death in 2006, was 30.
There was also a huge absence in talismanic forward Mohamed Aboutrika, missing from this competition due to injury.
This did not stop them steamrolling their way through the competition, however. A perfect nine points from nine sent them on their way, and they exacted a measure of revenge on neighbours Algeria, at whose hands they had suffered the cruellest elimination during World Cup qualifying, spanking them 4-0 in an ill-tempered semi-final.
In that run, they conceded just twice: going behind in games against Nigeria (in the Group Stage) and Cameroon (in the quarter-finals) before roaring back to win 3-1 on both occasions.
Ghana: 22 Kingson 2 Sarpei 3 Gyan 6 Annan 7 Inkoom 9 Opoku 10 K Asamoah 12 Addy 13 A Ayew 15 Vorsah 19 Badu
Egypt: 1 El Hadary 3 Elmohamady 6 Said 7 Fathi 8 Hosni 9 Zidan 10 Meteeb 12 Ghaly 14 Moawad 17 A Hassan 20 Gomaa
Ghana were set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape from the start, with Anthony Annan and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu screening the defence and Kwadwo Asamoah operating just ahead of them in possession. Out of possession, however, he tended to drop back to the right of Annan, allowing Ghana to present a 4-5-1 in defensive moments.
Gyan started upfront on his own.
Egypt played a hybrid 3-5-2/4-2-2-2 shape, and relied on the intelligence of Ahmed Fathi to shift between dropping to the side of the centre-backs and stepping into midfield to create a numerical advantage. Here, with only Gyan for the Egypt defence to worry about and Ghana seeking to congest the middle, he played almost exclusively to the right of Hossam Ghaly.
Mohamed Zidan and Emad Moteab partnered upfront, while Ahmed El Mohamady was tasked with getting forward from right-back.
The flow (and eventual outcome) of the game essentially came down to two zones of the pitch: the half-spaces between Ghana’s centre-backs and full-backs, and the midfield.
Faced with two strikers who wanted to make runs into the channels to receive balls played down the sides, Rajevac had full-backs Hans Sarpei and Samuel Inkoom stay narrow and rarely venture forward. This gave Ghana solidity at the back, and Moteab, a clinical but limited poacher, in particular had a very ineffectual game, unable to trouble the Black Stars’ defence either physically or through guile.
However, while this meant they were secure, Ghana struggled to take advantage of the freedom of their full-backs during build-up.
With both David Addy and Isaac Vorsah being pressed by Egypt’s front two, there was potential to exploit the Pharaoh’s lack of width by playing out to the full-backs. However, neither was willing to take risks in possession: Inkoom had some opportunities, but lacked composure – unsurprising given his youth – and his hesitance in promising situations was seized upon by Hosni Abd Rabo, who used his looseness on the ball as an effective pressing trigger.
The second decisive zone was the midfield – specifically Egypt’s inability to exploit their 4v3 numerical superiority.
Fathi’s positioning (mentioned earlier) gave Egypt an extra man in the middle of the park, but there was very little positional rotation to create opportunities for penetrative passing against a very disciplined Ghana midfield block.
With Ghaly struggling to play incisive passes into Hassan and Hosni, the former was often forced to drop deep and pick up the ball, effectively disconnecting him from the strikers. The upshot of this was two things: (a) Egypt spent long periods playing in front of a compact Ghana team, and (b) Hassan, now 34 and lacking the mobility he once had, resorted to shooting from ridiculous distances.
For their part, Ghana also struggled to connect the midfield to Gyan consistently. Asamoah’s deep position in midfield in the defensive phase made attacking transitions difficult, and they often relied on Andre Ayew receiving the ball to feet on the right and cutting infield. He popped up between the lines from time to time, but for the most part Gyan was isolated and easily manacled by Gomaa, who stuck tight, and Said, who covered behind.
As one might expect from a game between two defensively sound sides, this was a dreary game. The only player who threatened to break it open was Elmohamady, who was tracked very diligently by Opoku Agyemang. Almost all of Egypt’s attacking went down the right; Moawad was a lot less dynamic on the left.
As it turns out, Egypt won the game on two substitutions and a bit of rejigging in midfield.
After 56 minutes, Shehata sent on the more attacking Mohamed Abdelshafy for Moawad, a like-for-like change that immediately amped up the threat level on the left side.
Ahmed Hassan then swapped with Hosni, moving left-of-centre and finding more space to receive the ball behind the less defensively-aware Asamoah during turnovers. Now goalside of Ghana’s midfield block, he began to assert himself more with his passing. Just as importantly, Ghana seemed to tire somewhat, and Egypt began to look properly dangerous for the first time in the game, with Hosni and Zidan making more varied movements off the ball.
The second substitution would have a more direct impact: Moteab off, and Gedo on in the 70th minute to offer cleverer movement.
It would take 16 minutes for the winner to come, however, but when it did, it was a nice showcase of what Egypt had been doing well since the hour mark. Abdelshafy’s aggressive positioning dragged Inkoom wide and threatened Ghana’s horizontal compactness in defence, forcing Vorsah wider and creating a separation between himself and Addy; Gedo dropped deep to pick up possession, turned and played a one-two with Zidan, who had exploited the space between the centre-backs, before curling home the winner.
With four minutes of play left, Shehata sent on Salem Moatasem for Fathi, Egypt went to a proper back three and held on for the win.
This was the final flash of excellence from a great team. Egypt would miss the next four AFCON tournaments, only returning in 2017, upon which they predictably went all the way to the final—no team can claim ownership over Africa’s continental showpiece quite like them.
However, in terms of talent, the difference was stark: The Pharaohs may never again build a side that good, or that dominant for a sustained period.