As soon as the semi-finals were played in the just concluded Africa Cup of Nations, it was as if the scriptwriters were in for a bumper. Everything played into the hands of writers, content creators, scriptwriters.

The background: there was a manager of a very famous football club in England – a global brand with following all over the world in millions. Heavily successful, for many years in the top four of the English football pyramid, highly revered. Liverpool Football Club has been a household name for many years not just in England, but in many other countries and far-flung continents of the world.

European Champions Cup winners multiple times; English First Division/Premier League title champions 20 times – only surpassed by a certain Manchester United team.

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Not only going by history and pedigree, in the present day, the club still plays a scintillating brand of football, and they are close to the top of the ladder in England, only consistently bettered by Manchester City at the moment.

Managed by a respected, animated, technically and tactically savvy, proper German coach who has built a team of players who sometimes look and work like robots in discharging their duties on the pitch, raising their energy levels in the high-pressing game to levels that defy logic oftentimes.

To cut a long story short, two of Liverpool FC’s players were to feature in that final in Yaounde on Sunday 6 February.

Many clubs moaned about the timing of the AFCON. Many European clubs complained about the prospect of losing their players during the crucial winter fixtures of January and part-February. Some had come to accept it and outwardly they grudgingly allowed their players to go with minimum fuss.

Some had to consult their calendars to check when the invitation letters came in for their players and if it was as much as one hour outside the mandated time, were prepared to fight to hold on to their players and not release them.

It was a game we were used to seeing play out time in, time out. The only time it was not necessary was in 2019 when the AFCON of that year was in June/July – when all seasons were on break.

But back it came again in 2022, having suffered a COVID-inspired postponement from its original 2021 date.

In frustration, many coaches, managers, technical/sporting directors…and even agents (they call it ‘intermediaries’ for whatever reason these days) and media personnel had a moan or two about call-ups, depending on what side of the divide each person was. The debate livened up around Christmas time 2021, and it became secret the prayer of many a manager that their players’ nation is knocked out early from the AFCON in Cameroon so he/they can return to help their clubs.

Perhaps the most inflammatory statement was one made by this highly respected, top tactician – coach Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool – where he erroneously labelled the Africa Cup of Nations as a ‘small tournament’ in one of his rants about losing a lot of players to the tournament amid a tight schedule.

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That did not go down well with many – understandably – but it serves as the genesis of this piece.

Because strangely enough, while the loudmouths all had to swallow humble pie and go back to their clubs having posted dismal, discouraging, unlucky, or unsuccessful results, the manager who spoke the loudest, in apparent disrespect and almost a condemnation of our flagship tournament – saw his own players go all the way to the final, and he will not have them for a few days yet after it had all settled down.

Because the result of the semi-finals that I referred to earlier, pitted Sadio Mane of Senegal and his team against Mohamed Salah of Egypt, and it was the fairytale final many had wanted to see.

Pictures of both players went viral globally. It was like the only player Senegal had was Sadio Mane, and the only player Egypt had was Mo Salah. Anywhere the AFCON final was being previewed in the run-up to the day, it was Salah atop the Egypt flag and Mane on the Senegalese flag!

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These two guys though…..class act. I never liked Liverpool FC. Too direct a rival of my beloved Chelsea FC. We have had many exchanges, many controversial games between our two sides – hot-tempered, referee-infused, players’ hotheadedness and close encounters for me to like them. And I am sure majority of their supporters don’t give much of a damn about Chelsea too – so fair’s fair.

But when Chelsea released Mo Salah a few years ago without giving him enough game time to prove himself (Jose!), it was alright until somehow he started playing well in Rome, and somehow Liverpool got him, and he showed what he could have done for us at Stamford Bridge at Anfield. Not only was he generally good, but he also put up some performances against us to remind us of what we at Chelsea missed out on! I hated Liverpool even more.

Today, Mo Salah is arguably the best player in the world. His football intelligence, his close control, quick feet and clinical ability is unequalled over the last few years in world football – consistently.

He went into the Egypt camp like the Messi of old (they are not that much different in height by the way) demanding that he works with his teammates and try as hard as they could, to win an eighth AFCON title with Egypt. After all, has he not had it all? English Premier League, ticked. UEFA Champions League, ticked. World Cup appearance, ticked. Hosted the AFCON in 2019 and were disappointingly dumped out in the round of 16. So 2022 in Cameroon was redemption time, and he believed. Many believed with him as well because lets face it, he was on top of his game. Stats confirm it – 16 goals so far, and the season is only halfway gone!

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But he came up against his clubmate Sadio Mane of Senegal. Playful yet serious, unassuming, skilful but had a barren patch
earlier in the season. No doubting the exceptional talent that he is, though, he comes with pedigree. Leadership, hunger – yes, an amazing hunger for the game that is yet unequalled. Sadio loses possession and he doesn’t look to anyone but himself to get it back! You see from his face that he’s coming at you because he hated losing possession to you. You either hastily give the ball to someone else or he will catch you.

This lad is probably most underrated by the non-Liverpool crowd. But I know he is damn good. Humble, unassuming, passionate, patriotic, philanthropic, and very good at what he does. Sometimes you see the Ronaldo in him, in the way he really wants to get it right at all times and creates no space for weakness or mistakes in himself.

So, only 8 goals this season so far – low by his standards, but no disguising his prowess as a predator in the 18-yard box.

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They squared up on Sunday 6 February – even though they will be back on the Liverpool FC training pitch in a matter of days – they had to put that aside and play for their respective countries.

Mane’s Senegal has had it rough over the years. 1992 they hosted, and couldn’t make an impact at all. Ten years later they got to the final – in 2002, in Mali. They tried hard, but the might of the Cameroonians overpowered them on penalties and it was painful.

Guess who lost the penalty that handed the trophy to Cameroon that day in Bamako! Story for another day.

For years afterwards, Senegal had been hurting. But they have seen their status grow in leaps and bounds, been at the top of the rankings for Africa and in the top 20, top 30 of the FIFA rankings for so many of those 20 years, but the title eluded them.Sadio Mane was a part of the 2019 squad that reached the final of the last edition again in Egypt, but lost to a coy Algerian team.

And Sadio Mane was handed an early chance to calm nerves in the final of the 2022 edition – when he won a penalty in the 5th minute.

Prior to that penalty being taken, his teammate Mo Salah went to whisper something in the ear of his goalkeeper. We all wondered what he said. Could it be that he was saying ‘I know where Sadio will place the penalty….just go there and you’ll save it’.

That penalty was taken by Sadio saved, and it had us all wondering if it was going to be one of those days again for the Lions of Teranga.

But as football always is, Senegal held on. They did not score, but did not concede. Mane showed flashes. Salah showed class, but it all came down to the luck of the draw – penalties. Both Liverpool stars chose to take the fifth and final kick, but with Egypt having lost one earlier on, Mane could seal the win with his, while Salah would not need to take his fifth kick because it would be of no consequence.

Where are we going with this? These two acts…..pride of Africa. We saw the two of them, one at his best, the other at his not-so-good. One won, the other lost. Their results were different but their class remained.

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Congratulations to Senegal on its first ever African triumph. It was well-earned, and well deserved. Not such a small tournament
after all, Herr Klopp. Two of your boys were sister boys in the final – one lost, the other won – narrowly, and you have an African champion in your midst!

Today we can say with pride, that we have our own version of Messi and Ronaldo, only that they have their own identities – they are Salah and Mane – and it is a pity that both of them will not be able to hoist the African flag at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar later this year – one of them will have to stay behind! The irony of football!

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Hurry home guys, and take as long a rest as would allow Chelsea catch you in second place on the Premier League log. As for
goalkeeper Edou Mendy, hurry back – no rest for you!

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