Egypt – The Pharaohs – Africa’s Flawed Royalty
Egypt have won a record six Africa Cup of Nations titles, but have not been so successful when it comes to the FIFA World Cup™. The last time the Pharaohs participated in a World Cup was in 1990 in Italy, so it is high time they qualified again.
From the cosmopolitan centre of Cairo and Alexandria to the hinterlands, Egyptians poured out of their homes en masse on 7 September, cramming into squares and cafes to watch their beloved national team’s vital FIFA World Cup”” qualifier against Congo DR in distant Kinshasa. The fact that the vast majority had been fasting — it being the seventh day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – had no effect on the enthusiasm of the crowds, forced to gather in public as the game was not broadcast on national television. Their collective hope was best summed up by one fan, the aptly named Mohamed Ramadan, who shouted after the final whistle of the 1-0 win: “I pray to see my Egypt play in the FIFA World Cup’” just once before I die!”
This sort of desperation is a common feature among modern Egyptian football fans, who have never experienced anything resembling success on the global stage. The effusive Ramadan, now 58, was 40 the last time the Pharaohs graced a FIFA World Cup”‘ finals, at Italy ’90. He was not even born when they made their only other appearance, and a first for an African country, in 1934 also in Italy.
Their narrow victory over the Congolese left the defending African champions all but assured of a place in the final round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa” qualifying campaign, and a 4-0 victory over lowly Djibouti in Cairo guaranteed their presence. In the next and final round, Egypt will simply need to avoid a last-place finish to book passage to the next Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) in Angola in 2010, where they would defend the prestigious tide they have won twice on the trot (2006 at home and 2008 in Ghana).
However, fans of the most successful side in African football history cannot quite bring themselves to feel confident about reaching the first FIFA World Cup”‘ finals on their home continent. Inconsistent performances in the past have left the Pharaohs with a reputation as poor travellers and victims of serial stage fright when the time comes to take aim at the world’s biggest arena. Despite winning a record six CANs(1957, 1959, 1986,1998, 2006 and 2008), Egypt’s two FIFA World Cup appearances – both winless, first-round exits – have left the country’s fervid and long-suffering fans with an inferiority complex when stacked up against their sub-Saharan rivals like Nigeria and Cameroon. But history is made to be rewritten, and the current star crop of Egyptian footballers is convinced such troubles are behind them. “This generation has a new outlook, and we believe we are ready to forget about our same old problems,” teased Middlesbrough’s Ahmed “Mido” Hossam, who, along with Mohamed Shawky (also Middlesbrough), Amr Zaki (Wigan), Hossam Ghaly (Tottenham), Essam Al-Hadary (Sion, Switzerland) and Mohamed Zidan (Borussia Dortmund), is part of a clutch of Egyptians who have opted to break with the traditional two-club hegemony of Cairo giants Al Ahli and Zamalek and try their luck abroad.
An out-of-control coaching carousel has hurt Egypt’s past fortunes at international level, with the Pharaohs playing under no fewer than 11 managers in the ten years beginning in 1994. “Mahmoud Al-Gohari was named coach just a few months before the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers began, so we had no real time to become a ream,” said Mido, who missed out on the 2008 CAN in Ghana through injury. “The next time, before Germany 2006, Marco Tardelli took over just three weeks before our first game.”
After a disheartening run of form and a shock loss to Libya, the Italian FIFA World Cup winner was replaced by Hassan Shehata in October 2004.
Initially expected to be a caretaker, Shehata turned out to be the stalwart the team needed, and he has held the reins ever since.
The former Egyptian U-20 coach, Shehata was also a standout striker for Egypt and Zamalek in his day, and he has built a reputation as a taskmaster with a gift for building teams in a tournament environment. As if any further evidence of his motivational skills was required after guiding the Phataohs to two continental triumphs, Shehata had previously led four separate second-division clubs (Menia, Sharquia, Suez and Arab Contractors, where he hoisted the Egyptian Cup after a win over Al-Ahli) into the Egyptian top flight. “The fact that we have had the same coach and the same technical staff
for a few years is a huge advantage for us this time around,” added Mido, who famously clashed with the coach during the 2006 CAN.
It also does nor hurt that Shehata has one of the best crops of players in the country’s history to choose from, and that he knows a good number of them intimately from his time coaching the U-20s. Zidan, Hosni Abd Rabo – top player at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana – Zaki, Mido and the country’s elegant and talismanic playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika are just a few gems at the coach’s disposal.
One of the biggest problems Egypt have had in the past is a glaring inability to get results on the road. Their failed bid to reach France ’98 was largely down to their 1-0 defeat by Liberia in Accra, Ghana, despite hammering the George Weah-led side 5-0 at home. In the 2002 qualifiers, the ugly trend was laid bare again, with Egypt failing to win a single game on the road. Current captain Ahmed Hassan, who has earned almost 150 caps since making his debut in 1995, sums up the deficiency best: “It seems we were never fully aware of just how important it was to win on the road. We always seemed to think that getting draws away would be enough to keep us alive. But we have a new philosophy now. You can see it in the way we played against Congo in Kinshasa,” enthused the former Anderlecht midfielder after leading the team to two road wins in their last five qualifiers. “We went right for their throats; we took the game to them. Maybe in previous years we wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that.”
Amr Zaki, currently one of the hottest properties in Egyptian football after scoring 29 goals from 48 caps and beginning the English Premier League season in torrid form, is in total agreement with his captain. “In two successive CAN triumphs we’ve beaten some of the best teams in Africa, like Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon, so the fans will be expecting us to do the same again on a bigger stage. Shehata has given us a winning mentality,” continued the muscular former Zamalek ace, known affectionately as “The Bulldozer”. “So now, even if we are playing a tough competitor on the road, we are confident enough to go right after them.”
The inspirational coach, who is credited as the missing piece in the Egyptian puzzle, fittingly has the last word about the current state of the side: “It’s absolutely right that we should not fear anyone because we ate the reigning champions of Africa. It is the other teams that should be worried about facing us.”
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