Tipped to win the title, Egypt and Mohamed Salah didn’t even make the quarterfinals at the African Cup of Nations as the host and favorite was stunned 1-0 by South Africa and knocked out in the last 16 on Saturday.
South Africa’s defense stifled Salah, setting the platform for striker Thembinkosi Lorch to score the winning goal on a counterattack with five minutes left. That silenced 75,000 fans at Cairo International Stadium who were expecting to see the home team march on toward the final.
Lorch was on his own in front of goal as South Africa caught Egypt out in the final minutes. Lebo Mothiba played the ball across to him with Egyptian defenders scrambling to get back into position and Lorch side-footed past goalkeeper Mohamed el-Shenawy and into the bottom right corner of the net.
The stadium went so quiet that Lorch said his first thought was that the goal had been disallowed.
Egypt threw together a run of attacks in the final five minutes but couldn’t equalize and Salah slumped over, hands on knees, when the final whistle went. Some of his teammates lay on the ground and fans in the stands put their hands on their heads in disbelief. Some were in tears.
Meanwhile, the South African players ran to a corner of the cavernous stadium where a tiny pocket of their supporters celebrated.
Salah and Egypt lost the African Cup final two years ago but they were expected to put that right this year. They had home advantage, backed by tens of thousands of passionate followers in their quest to win a record-extending eighth African title for the country but the first since 2010. This tournament also meant more to Egypt than just sport. The country has been rocked by unrest and violence for nearly a decade and it was hoped Salah and the soccer team could bring some respite — and some joy.
Instead, Saturday’s exit was Egypt’s worst performance at a Cup of Nations anywhere since a group stage exit in 2004. It was made worse by the fact that Egypt has arguably Africa’s best player in Liverpool forward Salah.
Bitter disappointment gave way to anger for some fans who threw plastic bottles at the Egypt players.
“They failed us,” said one supporter. “They did not perform. The performance from the beginning is a big question. Where is the coach? Where is the playmaker? Failed players.”
Another fan said: “They hurt us badly.”
Egypt coach Javier Aguirre said he bore responsibility for the loss and the failed campaign and his future would be decided at a meeting with federation officials on Sunday.
“I am responsible for all consequences,” he said. “I am the one who chose the players, the substitutes and put the plan together.”
Everything went to plan in the group stage, with Salah scoring twice and Egypt winning three out of three games.
Compare South Africa, which lost two out of its three games in group play, only managed to score one goal, and squeezed through as the lowest ranked of all the last 16 teams.
The secret was the way South Africa and coach Stuart Baxter devised tactics to shut down the supply to Salah on the right wing and Mahmoud Trezeguet on the left, stifling Egypt’s playmakers.
Salah had a half-chance in the fourth minute when he fired a left-foot shot just wide. That was his clearest opening of the 90 minutes.
“Salah is an unbelievable player,” Baxter said. “We knew that if he gets one look at the goal, we could be going back to Johannesburg.”
Trezeguet had a couple more opportunities. His best was when he was played in on goal by Salah but hit a shot straight at South Africa ‘keeper Ronwen Williams.
South Africa wasn’t only about defending. Bafana Bafana also forced a series of saves from el-Shenawy in the Egypt goal, including a full-stretch fingertip stop from Percy Tau’s curling free kick.
South Africa was probably the better team and the reward for one of its most memorable results ever at an African Cup is a quarterfinal against Nigeria.
Nigeria earlier beat defending champion Cameroon 3-2 in a wild last-16 game.
Nigeria scored first before Cameroon replied with two goals in three minutes at the end of the first half to lead 2-1. Nigeria did the same to go ahead again with two goals in a three-minute spell after halftime.
Odion Ighalo scored two of Nigeria’s goals and Alex Iwobi snatched the winner in the 66th to put the 2013 champion into the quarters.
AP writer Samy Magdy contributed to this report.
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