We can’t quite say which biblical plague happened before The Pharaohs decided to loosen their grip on the African Cup of Nations, but we can say for sure that for three tournaments spanning four years, the Egyptian national team reigned supreme at the AFCON.
How did this all start? It started with a decision by CAF’s Executive Committee. They had the power to decide a winner in a smaller contest. The contest for who would host the 2006 tournament was decided in Cairo and for Cairo as Egypt beat Libya, Algeria and Ivory Coast.
When they won the hosting rights, they celebrated for two reasons. They knew that they had the opportunity to make a masterpiece of a tournament and they must have known that they had a very good chance to make a tournament win the showpiece that would grace their masterpiece.
They put on a magnificent tournament with brilliant spectacles and full stadiums and they more than matched the razzle and dazzle off the pitch and on the pitch.
They were drawn in the group stage against familiar faces LIbya and Ivory Coast as well as neighbours Morocco. Like in the bidding process, Egypt dispatched Libya and Ivory Coast with relative ease and shook hands on a draw with Morocco. They opened with a 3-0 win over Libya with goals from Ahmed ‘Mido’ Hossam, Mohamed Aboutrika and Ahmed Hassan.
After the draw with Morocco in the second game, they won again convincingly against a very talented Ivory Coast team that included Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure and Emmanuel Eboue. A team so good, they would go all the way to the final. They won 3-1 with Aboutrika scoring the eventual winner between goals from Emad Moteab.
Of the six goals they scored in the group stage, four of them were scored by players who had helped Al Ahly win the 2005 African Champions league just a few months before. Indeed, of the 12 goals scored in the tournament, five were scored by the protagonists of Al Ahly’s success. Not only that, seven of those twelve were scored by players playing in the Egyptian league for one club or the other. The other five were scored by the eventual player of the tournament Ahmed Hassan who joined Al Ahly two years later.
Egypt’s ode to their local league showed in their squad. Their 23 man squad was made up of 20 players who played in Egypt. More than any other team at the 2006 AFCON. Their penchant for playing local players would form the bedrock of their seemingly relentless success over the four year period.
A 4-1 quarterfinal dispatching of DR Congo was followed by a controversial win over Senegal. All the refereeing decisions were correct and Senegal behaved themselves, so all the controversy came from Egypt. With the score a 1-1 and the game entering it’s dying embers, Coach Hassan Shehata decided to take off forward Mido, a move which did not go down well with the then 22 year old who exchanged tirades with his manager and nearly came to blows. It was his second altercation with an Egyptian manager in his relatively short international career at the time after falling out with Egypt’s former manager Marco Tardelli and within 24 hours of the incident, he had been issued a six month ban by the Egyptian FA.
Mido, though adamant that he should not be taken off, must have felt a bit sill for the whole incident and it wouldn’t have taken him long to realise he had made a mistake. Two minutes after he came off the pitch, Amir Zaki who replaced him scoed what would be the eventual winner and sent Egypt to the final. Their first since 1998.
In the final they met Ivory coast once again and like the previous two times, they managed to beat them. This time through the lottery of a penalty shoot out. After experienced goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary had saved from Didier Drogba and Bakary Kone, the winning penalty was scored by none other than Mohamed Aboutrika. Egypt had their showpiece and their masterpiece was complete. They had won the 2006 AFCON and set their dynasty in motion.
Aboutrika was an outstanding player for Egypt. He had a casual brilliance about him and elegantly put Egypt’s enemies to the sword. He donned the number 22 jersey but he was a ‘10’ by in every sense. Ghosting into spaces between lines to create magic for the forwards and finding creative ways to get on the scoresheet himself.
He would repeat his final heroics in 2008, this time from open play and against another of Africa’s powerhouses.
Before Egypt got to the final they first had to navigate a group that included Cameroon, Zambia and Sudan. They would have to do so with only 12 new faces in their squad. They were without players like Hossam Hassan who was now 41 and had retired as Egypt’s highest goal scorer ever. They were also without 2005 BBC African player of the year Mohamed Barakat as well as 10 more players who were either now retired, injured or were simply replaced.
Doing away with some of the old guard meant there was space for some fresh blood. Enter Ahmed Elmohamady, Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Zidan. Three players who would be immensely important to Egypt’s future.
Armed with 17 home based players in their 23 including five Al Ahly players who had lost in the final of the 2007 CAF Champions league and who would reclaim their crown later in 2008, Egypt saw off the challenges of Cameroon and Sudan with 4-2 and 3-1 victories respectively. Goals from Hosny(3), Zidan(2) and Aboutrika(2) were enough to book Egypt a place in the last eight. The last game, a dead rubber against Zambia was drawn 1-1 thanks to a late Christopher Katongo goal. It would be the last time that Egypt would fail to win a match at AFCON for two years. It was also against the team who would take Egypt’s crown eventually.
In the Quarterfinal, Egypt were made to sweat for a 2-1 win over Angola and the doubts over whether they would be able to defend their crown began to surface. Those doubts would be tested against Ivory Coast in the semi final. They were dispelled comprehensively with a 4-1 thrashing of the Ivorians. Goals from Ahmed Fathy, Zaki(2) and Aboutrika were enough to take them to the final where for the second year running they played a team that they had already vanquished in the group stage. This time, it was Cameroon who were aiming to tie Egypt on five AFCON winners’ medals.
Unlike El Mohammady who took some time before being a first team regular, Hosny and Zidan made immediate impacts with the Pharaohs in the 2008 AFCON. Hosny scored four times, the joint most for Egypt alongside Aboutrika and Zaki while Zidan scored twice, introducing us to his amusing hot potato boot celebration. His most telling contribution however, came in the final where he showed guile and strength to rob Cameroonian legend Rigobert Song in the Cameroonian penalty box before sliding Aboutrika through on goal and Just like in 2006, the Carthage Kaka decided the AFCON final with a swift flick of his right boot.
At the start of the 2010 tournament, it was widely murmured in hushed tones that Egypt had no chance of winning the Nations Cup. They had lost Aboutrika and Zaki through injury and boasted too many players in their starting 11 who were supposed to be nearing the end of their careers, too many who were just starting out and not enough in between.
Even their habit of leaning on local talent didn’t seem to make much sense. Egyptian teams had not done as well in the CAF Champions league as previous seasons preceding the AFCON. Al Ahly who had been the shining light on the continent were dumped out of the Champions league in the Second Round by Kano Pillars of Nigeria and then were also dumped out of the CAF Confederations cup by Santos FC of Angola. They stuck to their onions anyway, having only four of the 23 man squad playing outside Egypt.
Like a big slap in the face of critics, Egypt’s victory was forged on the backs of Ahmed Hassan the player of the tournament who entered the tournament with 172 international caps and at 34, was head and shoulders above the rest of the competition and Mohamed Nagy aka ‘Gedo’ who entered the tournament with only eight international caps to his name but left the 2010 tournament a national hero topscoing in the tournament. To rub salt further into critical injury, both played at the time in Egypt. Hassan for Al Ahly and Gedo for Al Ittihad Alexandria.
Egypt breezed through the group stage with three wins from three against Nigeria, Benin Republic and Mozambique. Scoring seven goals and conceding only once.
In the first knockout round, they beat Cameroon again, this time needing extra time to put the tie to bed. A brace from Ahmed Hassan and one goal from Gedo were enough in the end to see off the Lions in the end.
In the Semi final, Egypt went against North African rivals Algeria who had denied them a berth at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. They exacted revenge on Algeria with righteous anger, smacking them 4-0 with goals from Hosni, Zidan, Gedo and Mohamed Abdel Shafy.
There was still one huddle for Egypt to clear before making history and it appeared in the form of a tricky and exciting Ghanaian side who would go on to have a very interesting World Cup experience.
The final against Ghana was hard fought and for the most part lacked any real spark. Both teams cancelled each other out and relied on their defenses which had conceded a combined one goal in the knockout rounds before the final.
WIth the game slowly edging towards extra time, Zidan again provided a Championship winning assist, finding Gedo on the edge of the Ghanaian penalty area before he unleashed a curling finish to give Egypt their record third consecutive AFCON title and extending their lead at the top of the overall charts to seven titles, three more than the next best at the time.
Egypt’s dominance was ended by Egypt themselves as they failed to qualify for the next three tournaments eventually relinquishing the crown to Zambia who won the title in 2012 but nobody can ever say they didn’t have a glorious run.
They ended their run with the most consecutive titles (3), the most titles (7), the most consecutive matches won (9) and when they returned in 2017, they continued their unbeaten run until the final where they lost making them the longest running undefeated side (24 games) in AFCON history as well.