There are no stars in the dark sky of Yaoundé; but when the Olembé stadium goes dark at the start of the closing ceremony concert, the stands are transformed into a constellation where the lights of the telephones are so many shining stars. There are no stars in the Yaoundé sky; but a band of Lions came to Cameroon to find it, snatch it, unhook it and embroider it forever close to the heart on the national jersey. This is what Senegal managed to achieve on Sunday, February 6, by winning the final of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), at the Olembé stadium, against Egypt, after a match at the end of the suspense ( 0-0, 4-2 on pens).
Go back. Senegal-Egypt, a poster full of class; the promise of an unprecedented duel, which punctuates in majesty the end of a bereaved tournament. Indeed, on January 24, shortly before Cameroon-Comoros (2-1), eight people were killed in a stampede in front of the southern entrance to the arena. A minute of silence was observed before the final. Life goes on, football too.
There is no star in the sky of Yaoundé, but a player is getting closer: Sadio Mané. Before the start of the match, on the giant screens, the jersey of the Senegalese number 10 appeared: ovation from the public. Then, a few minutes later, the guide of the Lions of Teranga rushes, smiling like a little boy, on the grass, arms raised, haranguing the crowd. Another ovation. Senegal play at home; the Egyptians, booed, do not have the right to the same reception.
Mané’s missed penalty
For journalists who came in large numbers from Dakar, this final is ” star Wars “. Senegal has been running since 1965 behind its first victory. This great footballing nation has never won an African Cup. What injustice! The Lions could have won in 2002 (against Cameroon, on penalties) or in 2019 (against Algeria, 0-1). For their third final, the second in a row, they vowed to bring her home.
Opposite, Egypt has seven victories, an unequaled record. Except that their leader, the untenable Mohamed Salah, never did. won: in 2017, he lost to Cameroon, to his greatest despair. Senegal-Egypt is also the confrontation between two friends, two stars, two attackers who share the same club shirt, that of Liverpool. Mané-Salah, a duel between two big names in African football.
Let’s go. As against Cameroon, Egypt agrees to leave the ball to the opponent. Then everything gets carried away: Saliou Ciss is broke in the area (3e). The referee does not hesitate long: penalty. Mané is about to shoot, the star is not far away. The public encourages him by shouting: ” the goal “. He rushes but Gabaski, imperial, stops the strike. Goalkeeper number two (the incumbent is injured) again stops a penalty, as in the previous round.
The Egyptian experience
We observe ourselves, we do not discover ourselves. The Pharaohs attempt to search for Salah. Their tactic is clear: give the ball to the boss and let his genius speak. The Senegalese clearly dominate; the Egyptians don’t panic in defence. Salah seems to be on his feet, even if, virtually, his team played one game more than his opponent: to reach the final, Egypt had to play three extra times.
Facing Senegal, a red wall is in place: how to find the fault? The finish is tight, closed, technical, and unspectacular. The Senegalese can’t find themselves in the last pass, the one that will make the difference. Salah seems to want to conclude: each of his checks is dangerous and makes a difference. Egypt plays like old veterans, with experience, with small vices, multiplying the small faults to break the rhythm of the counter-attacks. Senegal can not wrap this final.
On resumption, the intensity fell several floors. Senegal charges several times but Gabaski, again and again, does not let anything pass. When there is fire a few centimeters from his goal line, the goalkeeper throws himself at the feet, without fear, to catch the ball. The match becomes undecided, tense. Even if Senegal dominates, the final can switch to one side or the other. Salah remains in ambush to distribute assists.
Third penalty shootout for the Pharaohs
Bamba Dieng, twirling, could have given the advantage several times. We are heading for extra time, the fourth for the Pharaohs, the first for Senegal. The final is on a wire and Gabaski is impassable. Egypt is stubborn in its strategy: defend and wait for the right counter-attack. She does not play, she will regret it…
At the end of the suspense, the Pharaohs locked the final, annihilating Senegal and their game, unable to express themselves. End of overtime. Penalties, the third session for Egypt during this tournament. Unthinkable.
Edouard Mendy, best goalkeeper in the world according to FIFA, against Gabaski, who saved his team heaps of times. After Mané-Salah, another duel is announced. The public growls when an Egyptian is about to shoot, it exults when a Lion approaches: it demands that Senegal take down this damn star.
Three shots to two. Then Mendy saves the fourth shot on goal. Sadio Mané steps forward, the stadium chants his name; Mohamed Salah hides his face with his jersey. The number 10 sets off, marks, delivers his team, the stadium, a people. The star Mané has just won the African Cup of Nations, the first, the one everyone was waiting for. History has knocked a third time on Senegal’s door. It was the good one. Pape Diouf, former president of Olympique de Marseille, who died of Covid-19 in Dakar almost two years ago, would have liked to see this victory. That evening, there was no star in the dark sky of Yaoundé, but on the lawn of Olembé, Senegal finally found it.