From Mike Smith masterminding Egypts triumph to Ivory Coasts marathon shootout win and Zambias emotional 2012 success, half a dozen Afcon events to savour
1) The period an Englishman became champ of Africa
The Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser will never be allowed to forget his role in one of the most galling defeats in English history but, in the name of fair play, we should also recall that only a few months prior to carrying out an impromptu survey of Mexican cloud patterns while Diego Maradona punched the ball past Peter Shilton, Bin Nasser presided over a glorious English success. He was the referee who kept a careful eye on the 1986 Africa Cup of Nations final, conscientiously permitting no manual skulduggery as the manager Mike Smith helped Egypt to end a long and painful wait for victory. So lets call it quits.
Egypts Nations Cup history get off to a misleadingly straightforward start. They won the first two editions, when there were scarcely enough challengers to call it a tournament, and finished runners-up in the next one but then began to struggle despite the countrys club scene flourishing. Indeed, in 1967, in the wake of the humiliating loss in the six-day war, chairperson Gamal Abdel Nasser decided that football was flourishing far too much, confusing the menfolk and sapping their mettle. So he outlawed it. The ban was lifted in 1971, and three years later Egypt hosted the tournament for the first time. They flopped, beaten in the semi-final by a fine Zaire side. Staging the final was painful after that and as if to compound the hosts woe Zaire and Zambia drew 2-2 in front of a minuscule mob, obliging Egypt to stage a replay, which Zaire won 2-0.
So Egypt were a team under serious pressure when they next hosted the tournament, in 1986. At the time there was plenty of money swishing around Egyptian football. Many foreign coaches were seduced, such as Don Revie, who won the 1984 African Cup Winners Cup with Al Ahly, while Smith was appointed to the national team job a decade after guiding Wales to within a play-off of the 1976 European Championship. Smith helped arrange Englands first ever match in Africa, Bobby Robsons team winning 4-0 in a friendly in Cairo in January 1986. Two months ago the Africa Cup of Nations kicked off in the same city and Egypt looked defined for another chastening flop, as a Jules Bocand-inspired Senegal upset them 1-0.
But Smiths side rallied, finishing top of the group thanks to wins over Ivory Coast and Mozambique before edging out Morocco in the semi-final with a aim by Taher Abouzeid, aka the Maradona of the Nile. No one scored in the final, which, in stark contrast to the previous one staged in Cairo, was attended by around 100,000 people. Most of those people fell down silence when Cameroons Thomas NKono saved Mustafa Abdous penalty in the shootout. But Thabet El-Batal restored hope by saving from Grgoire MBida. And exhilaration erupted when Andr Kana-Biyik shoot broad to give Egypt and Smith victory.
Smith could not repeat that success in 1988, when Egypt slipped out at different groups stage, and did not have as deep an influence on Egyptian football as his two most brilliant successors( Mohamed El Gahary and Hassan Shehata) did. But in 1986 he did what was asked of him. And how many other English directors since Sir Alf Ramsey have won an international tournament? And on a penalty shootout, to boot. PD
2) When Red Devils were plucked from a basket
The thinking before the 1972 tournament was that the best that the players of the Peoples Republic of Congo could hope for was a creditable performance against their neighbours Zaire, who were the most likely challengers for the title along with the hosts Cameroon and Salif Keitas Mali. Congo achieved that in their second group match, when they played well but lost 2-0 to the Leopards. But Congo were not content with that and tonked Sudan 4-2 in their final group game, entailing they finished level on phases and objective difference with Morocco. A raffle featuring two pieces of newspaper and a basket was hastily arranged to determine which country would be proclaimed group runners-up. Luck favoured the Red Devils.
Their good fortune was not expected to last, however, as the semi-final pitted them against Cameroon, who had benefited from the sort of luck that hosts often enjoy when they described their final group game thanks to a objective scored after the Malian defense had stopped in the notion that the ball had gone way out of play. Thats one the biggest scandals in Africa Cup of Nations history, it was at least five metres out! thundered the commentator on Malian radio after the Egyptian referee permitted the goal to stand, although Keita, who had watched from the press box because of trauma, said afterwards that it was only out by 1.5 to two metres.
If that was scandalous, the semi-final was shocking in the best sense. Cameroon, slow and sterile either because of complacency or the weight of expectation, could not make any inroads against zesty and imaginative young underdogs. Congo opened the scoring after half an hour through their rugged and inventive central midfielder Nol Pp Minga and they held out for victory. Congo played with a powerful spirit under director Adolphe Bibandzoulou and their squad contained some truly nifty players such as the marauding winger Jonas Tostao Mbemba, the striker Jean-Michel Sorcerer MBono of toile du Congo and a 21 -year-old Paul Moukila, who began to show at this tournament the sort of form that would afterward make him an African player of the year. Congos best foreign-based player was the Ajaccio midfielder Franois MPl, afterwards of Paris Saint-Germain. All very well, but Mali had Keita, the 1970 African footballer of the year and a regular destroyer of European defences with St Etienne.
Injury forced Keita out of the final after 21 minutes but Moussa Diakhit soon helped prove that Mali still had plenty of other fine players: before half-time he feinted his way past an opponent and lashed a left-foot into the top corner from 25 yards. But Congo upset the odds and overturned the score when MBono struck twice in two minutes just before the hour, the second goal a superb flip with the outside of his boot from the edge of the area. MBono then teed up a third for MPl. Moussa Traor pulled one back for Mali but Congo held on to deliver and to become the most surprising champions in the tournaments history. PD
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