As the young men representing Cameroon and Egypt step onto the pitch at the Stade d’lAmitie Stadium in Libreville, Gabon for the AFCON 2017 final; they do so with the weight of their countries’ histories in this tournament resting on their broad shoulders.
Two of the continent’s most successful Afcon nations are contesting another final – their third at this stage. Only Cameroon v Nigeria has been played as many times.
At the start of this tournament I feared for Cameroon. In their opening group game they looked a rabble against the Stallions of Burkina Faso. In the second group game versus Guinea Bissau they looked utterly bereft of ideas as the tournament debutants took the lead. They did, however, turn it around to win.
It was in the final group game that I saw a team coming together as a unit – not to be confused with playing superb football though. They knew all they had to do was avoid defeat and they were in the knock out phase.
They went through but they had to rely on a truly heroic save from Joseph Fabrice Ondoa in goal in injury time to deny Gabon’s Didier Ndong. One of the outstanding saves of the tournament.
I can’t speak of the other continental tournaments but I know that the Afcon has its own unique qualities. The European odds had tipped Senegal for the tournament but I did not for any minute think they could win it. Cameroon battened down the hatches, took the game to penalties and went through – Ondoa again the hero, saving from Sadio Mane.
Cameroon have rarely been beautiful to watch, even in their dominant years. What they have always produced have been men who understand what it means to play for Cameroon at Afcon tournaments. Men who remember their teams that won the 2000 and 2002 editions. Who have been told stories of how they played in three straight finals from 1984 to 1986.
They understand their country’s history and know the expectations of their nation. These factors have driven this team, who were given little chance, to the final.
No matter what happens in the final, skipper Benjamin Moukandjo has shown he is another in the long line of inspirational skippers that the country has produced.
Centre backs Michael Ngadeu and Adolphe Teikeu remind one of typical centre-backs from that country: big, powerful and imposing presences with deceptive skills on the ball. Ngadeu has two goals already – both accomplished finishes with his right foot. The one in the semi showed a man at ease, considering the way in which he took two touches before lifting the ball into the roof of the net, knowing that defenders were on the line.
There have not been many great matches in the tournament to be honest, and these two finalists might not live long in the memory no matter who wins. Egypt's players under the Hector Cuper have had their own history to contend with: They have won seven Afcon finals and have beaten Cameroon twice at this stage.
In previous tournaments they have had far better teams than they have presented here in Gabon. Typically for a Cuper side, they play on the counter-attack, relying heavily on the pace of Mohamed Salah.
The first time these countries met in a final it ended on penalties. It will be a surprise if this does not go the same way.
In any case, both countries have returned to the top of African football, and the continent can only be better for it.
It is common place for Europhiles to dismiss the Afcon tournament but it is a formidable competition and for anyone of African descent, this is the biggest continental tournament.
In my opinion, the only competition in world football bigger than the Afcon is the Fifa World Cup. Those Cameroon players who decided to give this tournament a miss will be the ultimate losers, especially if the Lions win.