LUANDA // The pantheon has a new level. Egypt became the first side to win three straight African Cups of Nations last night and went someway to erasing the heartache of missing out on a place in the World Cup finals. For a third tournament running, they reserved their least impressive performance for the final, but Mohamed Nagui's 84th-minute winner was enough to break the resistance of a youthful Ghana side who will surely go on to grea-ter things.
Ghana had played with spirit and verve, but when Eric Addo just failed to convert as Samuel Inkoom's cross dropped invitingly in front of him in injury time, they knew the game was up. Moments later, Mohamed Zidan, sporting a outrageous haircut featuring a heart, an equals sign and a football carved in his scalp, was climbing the goalposts to join Essam el Hadary in his now familiar celebratory pose. Then Hassan Shehata, who has still not lost a Nations Cup game in 18 attempts, was being flung into the air by delirious players.
The only sour note came as stewards tried to prevent Egypt players from running to celebrate in front of their fans. Zidan, never one to pay too much attention to authority, broke through their line, and seemed to be physically impeded: idiotic officialdom letting African football down once again. Yet amid the joy, there must also be a sense of sadness. For Egypt, this feels like the end of an era, something acknowledged by their veteran team manager, Samir Adly.
Five of this side - El Hadary, Hany Said, Wael Gomaa, Ahmed Fathy and Emad Meteeb - have played in the last three finals, while the incomparable Ahmed Hassan not only played in all three, but also got the opening goal in the final in 1998 as Egypt beat South Africa. "In February," Adly said, "we start again." There had been a theory that Ghana, having reached the final against all expectation, would be overawed by the occasion, but they started better than they could have dared hope, instantly looking comfortable in their new 4-2-3-1 formation, holding possession as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
For the first time since the opening game, when Nigeria unsettled them, Egypt looked a little rattled. Even Hassan, the most experienced African player there has ever been, seemed to feel the pressure, and it could only have been his reputation that saved him a booking as he followed up an attempt to handle the ball over the line with an ugly hack at Kwadwo Asamoah. The 21 year old, such a refreshing force in this tournament and potentially the first top-class creative midfielder to come out of west Africa in a decade, had an uneven game, the odd inspired touch being rather lost amid his tende-ncy to over complicate.
Ghana, though, having been instructed to take the sting out of the game by keeping it away from the Egyptians, lacked penetration, with Asamoah Gyan frequently being left isolated as the lone forward, waiting and waiting for runners to give him options. Man-marked by Gomaa, he battled manfully, but the only chance Ghana had in their period of first-half domination came as Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu stole across Hosny Abd Rabou, who plays for the UAE champions Al Ahli, but missed his kick as Asamoah's free-kick scooted across the box.
Egypt, perhaps struggling to reproduce the passing game that served them so well in Benguela on the spongy, bobbly pitch in the capital, struggled for fluency, highlighting again the quality of Ghana's centre-back pairing of Isaac Vorsah and David Addy, who play with an experience that belies the fact they have only 40 years between them. But with six minutes to go, Nagui, such a threat off the bench in this tournament, exchanged passes with Zidan, and ran on to strike a precise finish past Richard Kingson; his fifth goal of the competition confirming his status as top-scorer.