Super EaglesThe 2017 Africa Cup of Nations will this Sunday come to an end. It is a tournament that has had it all so far: great goals, upsets, rousing underdog stories; the fireworks.
Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Egypt made it through to the last four (Egypt have qualified for the finals as at writing this piece), all seeing off more exciting teams on paper.
There is a unity of purpose and single-mindedness that underpins every one of them – none is spectacular, but in tournaments it really is more important to pick your moments.
More than most, Egypt are familiar with this. Theirs is a team that is relatively inexperienced, but they have in Hector Cuper a manager that has been around the block quite a bit.
Their last appearance at this competition came in 2010, when they were crowned champions for the third time in a row, and for the seventh time overall.
No one could have guessed back then what was to come, or that it would take seven long years for the Pharaohs to once again grace the Nations Cup.
For all its insularity, even football cannot be untouched by wider socio-political instability.
The Arab Spring, which led to the barracking of an unpopular government as well as the sacking of serial champion Hassan Shehata as coach, came to a head with sectarian violence involving fans of Al Ahly and Al Masry during an Egyptian league game in 2012.
At that point, the Pharaohs had already failed to qualify for the 2012 edition of the Nations Cup, as an aging sound began to show some wear. That unfortunate incident, however, led to a two-year ban on league football. For a national team with a talent pool overwhelmingly drawn from within its borders, it was a death blow.
To what extent things are now back to normal is arguable. In any case, those seven years have brought about a regeneration in the squad, as well as three managerial changes. Cuper’s charges are young and have a point to prove.
The skill and savvy of the likes of Gedo, Ahmed Hassan, Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Aboutreika may be the wistful memories of another time, but this team retains the core Egyptian psychology and no inferiority whatsoever.
The football is austere, and Cuper demands organisation above all else, but their run to the final four is testament enough: Egypt has returned.There is perhaps a lesson for another sleeping giant of African football. Nigeria may have only won three continental crowns, but the Super Eagles have managed to stay relevant in African football since the 80s. That changed at the turn of the decade. Nigeria’s sole qualification for the Nations Cup since 2010 came in 2013 and culminated in an unlikely run to the title.
Much like Egypt, Africa’s most populous nation has proceeded to shoot itself in the foot. But while the circumstances in the case of the North African nation were to some degree extenuating, in Nigeria’s case it is a series of missteps and administrative bungling that has led to this point.
However, there is now a younger, hungrier crop with no airs. In charge is a coach with a great deal of experience, who has admirably retained the core identity of Nigerian football.
If recent performances in the early stages of World Cup qualifying are anything to go by, things may be starting to look up again.As Egypt show, there is no hole, self-dug or otherwise, which cannot be wriggled out of. Things may be starting to look up for Nigerian football fans everywhere.
On the subject of 2018 World Cup qualifying, it will not be lost on anyone that Cameroon also made it all the way to the last four. Considering the number of high-profile withdrawals from foreign-based professionals leading up to the tournament, this represents a minor miracle even.
It is also a cautionary tale for Nigeria going into their qualifier in the later part of the year. Whatever the bottle it comes in, Cameroon always present a fine vintage.
Granted, this Indomitable Lions squad lacks the star power of its predecessors. It may in fact be the least talented, player-for-player, since the 70s. However, for sheer determination and fighting spirit, there is no such thing as a weak Cameroon.Nigeria, with their long-running rivalry, would do well to take note.