Soccer is a sport with such thin margins, with so few scoring events, that every chance on goal is precious. The stakes are sky high: to score is divine, and to miss is a tragedy. Senegal and Liverpool star Sadio Mané found himself at both extremes of that spectrum over the course of Sunday’s African Cup of Nations final, in near mirror images of each other on both ends of the match. That he failed first only to come back and succeed when it mattered most has to make Senegal’s first ever AFCON trophy all the much sweeter for its no. 10.
Facing off against Egypt, pitting him against his club teammate and good buddy Mohamed Salah, Mané had the chance to be an early hero for the Lions. In the fourth minute, Egyptian defender Mohamed Abdelmonem brought down Saliou Ciss in the box, giving Mané a chance to make 1–0 from the spot. Goal keeper Gabaski had the Pool Boy scouted well, and dove to his right to stop a well-placed spot kick to keep the score level at zeros.
The game didn’t offer much fireworks after that early spark, as both teams were clearly exhausted from the long mid-season tournament. That was doubly true for Egypt, who went to extra time in their three previous knockout-round matches. By the time the final lurched its way into 30 minutes extra time, a penalty shootout felt inevitable. There were chances here and there. Gabaski was magisterial all day, more than earning his Man of the Match award, though it had to be only a small condolence following his eventual loss. Senegal wisely marked Salah mostly out of the game, and the Egyptian star had little left in the tank after logging so many minutes throughout the tournament.
When the game progressed to the shootout, all eyes turned to the two Liverpool stars. Where would they shoot? As it turned out, both Mané and Salah were set to go fifth. It was the perfect setting for maximum drama, just as long as their teammates did their part. Mané’s did, missing only one penalty, but Salah was let down by both Abdelmonem, who hit the post, and Mohanad Lasheen, who saw his kick saved by Chelsea keeper Édouard Mendy.
That set the table for Mané’s redemption moment: up he stepped to the spot, with Senegal up 3–2. If he missed, as he did in regular time, Salah would get a chance to even it out and push the shootout into sudden death. As should be clear by now, Mané didn’t miss:
To clarify the enormity of the achievement for himself and his nation, Mané put it quite simply: “It’s the best day of my life and the best trophy of my life. I won the Champions League and some [other] trophies but this is the special one for me. This is more important for me.”
There’s a lot of mostly understandable griping about the lengthy, momentum-zapping midseason international breaks, but it overshadows a truth that is easy to forget: the rewards of the international game are incomparable to anything else in the game. Mané has won the two biggest trophies in club soccer with Liverpool, and yet he didn’t even hesitate to explain how this African Cup dwarfs the others. Salah has lifted those same club trophies alongside Mané, and yet that prior success had to be little comfort for the clearly distraught Egyptian in the aftermath of Sunday’s final.
For Senegal, this becomes their biggest accomplishment on the international front, toppling the country’s run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. That World Cup run was fantastic, and was the country’s proper entrance onto the world soccer stage, but nothing beats a trophy. For Mané, it’s instant redemption, a proper moment for the player of the tournament who carried Senegal through a tricky group, and a dominant run through the knockout rounds. He may have missed the chance to score in an AFCON final, but with a continent of pressure on his shoulders, he went left again, past the outstretched arms of Gabaski, and into African soccer history.