AFCON 2017: Egypt through to final after 44-year-old El-Hadary’s heroics

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Egypt 1-1 Burkina Faso

Essam El-Hadary penalty heroics guide Pharaohs to AFCON final

CNN  — 

The footballing pasts of Egypt and Burkina Faso could hardly be more different.

While the Pharaohs have lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy a record seven times, Burkina Faso had only advanced beyond the group stage twice coming into this year’s tournament.

How things can change. Even after 120 minutes of football at Libreville’s Stade d’Angondje, the two sides could not be separated.

It all came down to penalties, thrusting Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary into the spotlight once more.

Over two decades on from his international debut, the 44-year-old has a record four AFCON titles to his name, and had not conceded at the Cup of Nations for over seven years.

Few days will be more memorable than this.

The shootout had looked to be heading Burkina Faso’s way when El-Hadary’s opposite number Herve Koffi, 24 years his junior, made a sprawling save from Hamed El Said’s opening penalty.

But El-Hadary has never rushed things. And, when Koffi himself stepped up to take the Stallions’ fourth spotkick with the final just two strikes away, his effort was dramatically beaten away by the veteran keeper.

Parity in the shootout was restored, but El-Hadary was not yet done. When Amr Warda converted Egypt’s fifth penalty, the Pharaohs edged 4-3 ahead.

El-Hadary had beaten Burkina Faso in the semifinal way back in 1998 en-route to lifting the trophy, and had a chance to send Egypt to African football’s showpiece once more.

As ever, he didn’t disappoint, saving the decisive effort from Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traoré, a man less than half his age.

The ‘seven-year clean sheet’

The Pharaohs progress to a final against Ghana or Cameroon, but it was Burkina Faso that started the game more brightly.

You certainly might have noticed Egypt’s opponents had enjoyed a day more rest, as the Stallions arrived first to every second ball, winning much of the midfield battle.

The imposing figure of Aristide Bancé – their matchwinner in the quarterfinals and a veteran of 19 different clubs – was providing a consistent focal point in attack.

Without star player Jonathan Pitroipa for the duration of this tournament, and Jonathan Zongo since the opening game, Burkina Faso instead relied on the clear sense of togetherness instilled by coach Paulo Duarte.

But, despite four shots on target in the opening period, Burkina Faso failed to truly test El-Hadary.

And, as is so often the case, the dominant side’s profligacy was eventually punished.

It had been a quiet first half for Egypt’s star man, but Mohammad Salah came to the fore when it counted, guiding a measured strike beyond Koffi into the top corner just after the hour.

It was the first real glimpse of the Pharaohs’ pedigree, but a single goal wasn’t to be enough after three consecutive 1-0 wins this tournament.

Just eight minutes later, Bancé further justified his inclusion in the Burkina Faso attack, controlling the ball on his chest and pivoting in one motion, before arrowing a right-footed volley beyond El-Hadary.

It was the first time the veteran goalkeeper had picked the ball out of the net at the Cup of Nations since the 2010 quarterfinal against Cameroon– a run spanning over 10 hours of football.

Thanks to his penalty shootout heroics, he may well be facing the Indomitable Lions again come Sunday.

Sport meets politics

The win will be particularly significant for Egypt given the Pharaohs are playing their first AFCON since 2011’s Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa.

On-pitch travails have coincided with political turmoil off it.

Having won the tournament for a third time in succession in 2010, Egypt finished bottom of its qualifying group just a year later – below the likes of Niger and Sierra Leone.

The 2012 Port Said stadium riots and 2013’s military coup then led to the 2011-12 and 2012-13 domestic seasons both being canceled.

And, while some members of the Egypt squad played abroad, most of the squad faced a dearth of competitive fixtures.

Such a shortage of match practice saw Egypt crash out in qualifying to the Central African Republic in 2013 and lose four out of six qualification matches in 2015.

But it seems this year things are different.

“The biggest challenge is to show Africa that Egypt is back again,” Egypt fullback Ahmed Elmohamady told CNN while training in Gabon.

“We are there to win the cup, not to just to play and go back to Egypt.”

Thanks to El-Hadary, they look set to do just that.