And there was the final of the Africa Cup of Nations too, or the CAN as the French call it (doing likewise in English can give rise to some inelegant locutions such as 'being on the CAN for three weeks'). This year's tournament in Angola was, by most accounts, a disappointing one. I say 'by most accounts' because I saw little of it until the quarter-final stage. In France, the CAN is ring-fenced, rather unfairly by the cable channel Orange Sport, an annoyance for many football fans in the European country that cares most about the tournament. There were 68 French-based players in Angola, almost three times more than the next biggest representation, and nine of the 16 competing nations were former French colonies. Not surprisingly, there are few Ligue 1 managers that dare moan about losing their players to a competition played mid-season.
Togo are still reeling from the CAF's absurd decision to ban them from the next two tournaments because their withdrawal from this year's one following the Cabinda shooting was done because of governmental interference. As unjust and ridiculous as this decision is - not to mention insensitive - I'm not terribly surprised. The Togolese government was rather public in its requesting its team to return home for three days of mourning, as it had every right to be, and I could see the suits in the CAF bridling at this. FIFA and its minion affiliates like to invoke this division of government and football as if it were as worthy or undeniably ethical as the separation of church and state. There are, of course, good reasons to keep governments' mitts out of football but sometimes FIFA's motives seem more like eluding scrutiny of its own questionable practices. Besides, as L'Equipe commented yesterday, government interference in African football is practically de rigueur and if one were to indulge it in lesser instances, why not do so after a tragedy such as befell the Togo team? But I tire of expecting decency from football administrators anywhere, not least the sort whose first reaction to the attack on the Togo delegation was to condemn them for allegedly failing to observe security measures.
After all this, Egypt trotted out winners once again, sneaking a sly victory over Ghana thanks to a fine late goal from supersub Gedo, his fifth in the tournament. Hassan Shehata has fashioned the Pharaohs into an Arab version of the Germany of old: a formidable, well-marshalled, powerful outfit endowed with the mental strength to soak up pressure and strike at the vital moment. In the bar on boulevard St-Martin, where I watched the final, everyone, be they sub-Sahran or North African was cheering Ghana on, for any number of reasons, I imagine. But all were admiring of the Egyptian smash-and-grab, a mark of true professionalism. Egypt have been lucky in the tournament, with an appalling refereeing decision gifting them a non-existent goal to kill off Cameroon in the quarter-finals. Over the 90 minutes Cameroon had looked the better team. Ghana similarly passed the ball with far greater fluidity but the Black Stars rarely looked like making the breakthrough, relying far too much on strikes from distance. A goal at the other end always looked a possibility, given the swiftness of the Egyptian breaks and it probably would have come in extra time if Gedo hadn't played that sharp one-two with Mohammed Zidan and coolly placed the ball beyond Richard Kingson's reach.
Now that, with three titles on the trot and with half a dozen players featuring on all three occasions, the Egyptians can be conclusively proven to be a better side than any of the six African representatives at this year's World Cup, one wonders what might have happened if they got there. We got a glimpse at last year's Confederations Cup, where the Pharaohs gave a good account of themselves, losing narrowly to Brazil and beating Italy before collapsing, alarmingly, against the United States when they were on the brink of the semi-finals. We'll never know, and Egypt will have to keep up the momentum and try to make it to Brazil in four years' time. As for Ghana, their stylish play will be welcome at the World Cup, even if a tough group involving Serbia, Australia and Germany might be too tall a task for their enthusiastic youngsters.