PORT-GENTIL, Gabon (AP) - Seven years of soccer gloom might be slowly lifting for Egypt.
The African Cup of Nations’ most successful team made it back to the quarterfinals on Wednesday, beating one of the title contenders along the way. A 1-0 win over Ghana ensured its long-awaited return to the championship will continue for at least a little while longer.
Mohamed Salah blasted home an 11th-minute free kick on the final day of the group stage in Gabon, and Egypt clinched the last quarterfinal place with the victory.
Salah’s goal, a thunderous left-foot free-kick that gave Ghana’s goalkeeper no chance, sparked celebrations back home in Egypt, and for a small group of Egyptian fans who made it all the way to the Gabonese city of Port-Gentil on the other side of Africa. Those fans, for years used to success at the African championship, have been starved of any joy lately with Egypt, the record seven-time champion, failing to even qualify for the last three tournaments.
Egyptian soccer has been held back by the major political upheavals back home.
“Our ambition is very high,” Egypt’s Argentinian coach Hector Cuper said after Wednesday’s win. “We’re so enthusiastic and we’re so motivated. My message to the Egyptian people is: We are going to fight in the coming games, we are going to play our best.”
Egypt needed to win to make sure it progressed, while Ghana had already qualified.
But the victory also gave Egypt renewed hope that it can compete with the best again at the Cup of Nations, a tournament it won for the third straight time in 2010, breaking all records, before the collapse came.
Salah’s strike at Stade de Port-Gentil was one of the goals of the tournament, too, as he stepped up and smashed his free kick into the top left corner with eye-opening power and accuracy.
Egypt’s victory eliminated Mali, which had a small chance of denying the Egyptians that knockout place. Mali drew 1-1 with already-eliminated Uganda in the northern town of Oyem, with that game hit by heavy rain just before kickoff that left a field that was already poor, now sodden and unpredictable.
“It was a catastrophic pitch, unplayable,” Mali’s Yacouba Sylla said.
Uganda coach Milutin Sredojevic said: “It looked more like water polo than football, but we have an answer for that, it was the same conditions for both teams.”
The reward for Egypt is a match-up with North African rival Morocco in the quarterfinals, a game that’s sure to get the passions rising.
“This next game is going to be another tough game but we’re going to play with the same fighting spirit as we did today,” Cuper said.
Ghana rested a few key players, but came out of the Egypt loss with at least one serious concern. Captain Asamoah Gyan limped off in the first half with a leg injury and coach Avram Grant wasn’t sure if the skipper, Ghana’s leading striker, would be fit for the quarterfinal against Congo.
“It’s not looking so good but Gyan is a very strong boy,” Grant said.
After a shaky start in defense, Ghana settled and created openings in the second half. Emmanuel Badu’s long-range shot forced Egypt’s 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam el-Hadary to scramble to push it away. Jordan Ayew, on for Gyan, brought another crucial save out of el-Hadary with a minute left.
Pessimistic followers of Ghana might be worried that their team, four-time African champions themselves, are showing familiar signs of freezing as the pressure mounts. Ghana has often been rated one of the best teams at the African Cup but hasn’t won the title since 1982.
Ghana’s own miserable run has included three losses in the final since that last triumph.
“Of course, the players want to win and we are not happy that we didn’t win this game, but I don’t think it will affect the quarterfinal,” Grant said.
The quarterfinal schedule for Gabon’s African Cup is Burkina Faso vs. Tunisia and Senegal vs. Cameroon on Saturday, and Egypt vs. Morocco and Congo vs. Ghana on Sunday.
Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP
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