Ondoa vs. El-Hadary a microcosm of Cameroon vs. Egypt in AFCON final
You have to stretch the mind back only two years to recall an African Nations Cup final that became the tale of a goalkeeper; in that case, it was Ivory Coast's Boubacar Barry. This time around, it might well be a story of two. Five of the past nine finals have been settled by penalty shootouts, and if that is to be the fate of Sunday's meeting between Egypt and Cameroon, whoever is the hero will bring his own compelling narrative.
Between Egypt's posts will be Essam El-Hadary, the remarkable 44-year-old who, since replacing the injured Ahmed El-Shenawy in their opening draw with Mali, has broken records and played a critical part in their success. El-Hadary is on the verge of a fifth African Nations Cup winner's medal since 1998 and might feel he is charmed. The veteran has sometimes looked wobbly under high balls during this tournament, but he came good when it mattered in the semifinal against Burkina Faso, saving brilliantly from his opposite number, Herve Koffi, and Chelsea's Bertrand Traore to prove that time has yet to blunt those reflexes.
El-Hadary made his full Egypt debut in 1996. On Christmas Eve the year prior in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, Fabrice Ondoa was born. A little over two decades later, they face each other at Stade de L'Amitie, and Ondoa's presence is a surprise in its own right.
He has not played for his domestic side -- Sevilla B in Spain -- this season and has made only five senior appearances for any club since originally joining Barcelona B in the 2012-13 season. His lack of action has been a cause of concern for Cameroon manager Hugo Broos, but outstanding saves from Didier Ndong and Sadio Mane -- the first to take Cameroon through the group stage at Gabon's expense, the second to win them their quarterfinal shootout against Senegal -- more than justified his faith. Ondoa has proved to be an athletic, brave presence underpinning a side notable for its youthful vigour.
"At his parent club, Gimnastic, he didn't play last season, and I told him I didn't understand what was happening," Broos said Saturday. "I asked him, 'Did you do something wrong there?' When you hardly play for two years and see what he's doing for the team, it's unbelievable. He's a very good keeper and in this tournament has made some brilliant saves."
In many ways, the faceoff between custodians old and young is an accurate microcosm of this battle between two of Africa's traditional powers. Egypt, seeking a record-extending eighth African Nations Cup, have won the past three continental tournaments for which they have qualified and have the battle-hardened feel of a team that knows the ropes. In fact, that is slightly deceptive: Only four of Hector Cuper's squad remain from their latest triumph in 2010, but the Argentinian manager has moulded them into a sturdy, counter-attacking unit that looks suited to tournament football. At times, they have ridden their luck, but the tactical plan is essentially sound, and Cameroon will find them troublesome to prise open.
How will Broos seek to break through them? Cameroon were tentative in the Senegal tie but grew into it and created chances to win in open play. They were more forthcoming against Ghana, and their victory was just reward for an enterprising attacking display.
"Every game we took the best strategy, and certainly the confidence made us believe more in ourselves and take our chances," Broos said. He will be wary of Egypt's quick breaks upfield but might reason that, just as Ghana were rattled by their fast start in Franceville, the favourites might be vulnerable to some stern early examination. Then again, perhaps patience will pay off. Cameroon seemed to outlast both Senegal and Ghana physically as those games went on. Egypt's players were out on their feet by the time penalties came around in their semifinal with Burkina Faso and might find Cameroon's energy difficult to deal with as the final wears on.
"My players are exhausted," Cuper said in his prematch news conference, doing little to dispel this particular theory. "There have been short intervals between matches. We are now rehabilitating the players to find out who will be available for the game.
"Cameroon is a very strong and organised team. They deservedly reached the final. I think that we have the same style of play, and the game will be tough for both teams."
Cuper and Egypt might find the atmosphere particularly hostile; this might amount to a home fixture for Cameroon, which shares a border with Gabon. A huge expat population lives in Libreville, and buses will be making the lengthy journey south from Yaounde and Cameroon's other major city, Douala, to transport supporters to the game. Stade de L'Amitie might yet see its best atmosphere of the competition; Egypt can expect to be backed by only a pocket of travelling fans.
That will certainly be a far cry from the first time these two sides met in an African Nations Cup final, when Egypt won on penalties in front of a home crowd in Cairo. The second meeting was settled by a Mohamed Aboutrika goal in Accra nine years ago; El-Hadary kept a clean sheet that night, and the same again would put the onus on Ondoa to make another historic contribution for Cameroon's underdogs.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.