With great disappointment, Egypt fails to reach Africa Nations Cup for the second time in a row, reports Ahmed Morsy
Central African Republic (CAR) pulled off one of the biggest surprises in African football by knocking Egypt out of the 2013 Orange Cup of African Nations (CAN) qualifiers. Seven-time African champions Egypt failed in the qualifying preliminaries of CAN for the second successive time following a 4-3 aggregate defeat by CAR after they were held to a 1-1 draw in Bangui Saturday. Two weeks ago, Egypt slumped to a 3-2 defeat by a 10-man CAR behind closed doors in Alexandria.
Lacklustre Egypt, won three successive continental titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010, needed to overturn their first-leg home loss. However, their performance was once again below par in Bangui, leading them to miss next year's CAN finals in South Africa.
This represents the worst record for the Pharaohs in the history of the biennial tournament, being the first time they have failed to qualify for successive editions. In 1965 and 1968, Egypt withdrew from the competition but went on to become the most decorated team, winning seven titles overall, including a hat trick from 2006 to 2010.
In spite of their promising start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers when they defeated Mozambique and Guinea in their first two games earlier last month, Egypt, against CAR, appeared exhausted and badly affected by lack of domestic football action since the Port Said tragedy in February in which 74 football fans died in a local game, forced the cancellation of the domestic league.
The visitors made changes to their squad with starting berths for Ahli players, striker Emad Meteb, midfielder Hossam Ghali, right-back Ahmed Fathi and left-back Sayed Moawad. Similar to the first leg, CAR productively made the most of their fast-paced counter-attacks while remaining solid at the back. Egypt, on the other hand, looked ineffectual, with Meteb and forward Mohamed Nagi "Gedo" unable to unsettle the hosts' defence. In addition, the state of the muddy pitch also made it difficult for both sides to move the ball around.
In the 19th minute, CAR wasted their first chance when Fernander Kassai sent in a superb cross with the outside of his left foot which evaded Ghali, a natural central midfielder who was deployed as a defender, and found Foxi Kethevoama, whose volley missed the target.
Four minutes later, Kethevoama made amends when he made light of a challenge from Egypt's right-back Fathi at the far post to head home a deep cross past Egypt goalie Essam El-Hadari and give CAR the lead.
Egypt's task became much more difficult as they needed to score at least three goals to overturn the deficit. Thus, they poured forward but still struggled to create clear-cut chances.
In the second half, Egypt's US coach Bob Bradley introduced Ahmed Temsah and Ahmed Hassan Mekki to boost Egypt attacks but CAR still unsettled the visitors with their neatly-worked counter-attacks.
In the 72nd minute, Meteb successfully levelled the score. Egypt grabbed a second when Temsah paved a way between two defenders on the left hand side of the penalty box before squaring the ball to Meteb, whose deflected close-range shot looped into the net.
Nevertheless, CAR held firm in the remaining minutes to survive the Egyptian onslaught and qualify for the final round, shattering the Pharaohs' hopes of playing in South Africa next year.
After the final whistle, CAR completes the 30-team list ahead of the draw for the final round scheduled 5 July in Johannesburg. They will go into a draw for a last round of 15 matches and the winners of those ties, to be played over two legs home and away in September and October, will qualify for the finals in South Africa.
Despite the failure to reach the 2013 CAN, Bradley insists that the national team is still moving in the right direction. He said, during an interview with Modern Kora's Ahmed Shobeir, that he understood the disappointment of the setback but remained defiant over his team's successful start in the World Cup qualifiers.
"I believe that I will continue at this moment. Certainly we know that when there is a disappointing result for any national team coach, there are decisions that you can't control," Bradley said. "But I'm very proud of the work we've done during this period. The month of June was important.
"There were two halves. There was the first, which was to get off with a good start in World Cup qualifying. In the first half, we were successful.
"In the second half we needed to advance in the CAN qualifiers, where we were not successful, but we still feel that we're moving the team forward in a good direction."
Regarding the tie against CAR, Bradley believes that a couple of crucial mistakes from the first leg condemned his side to defeat.
"There were a couple of critical moments in the first game. We took the lead 1-0 and we had a very good chance to make it 2-0, that we didn't take advantage of," the American added.
"We made a very bad mistake to let CAR back in the match.
"Again we took the lead and we had a very good chance when it was 2-1, but we didn't take advantage and we made some critical mistakes and ultimately we paid for this."
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) has asked Bradley for a technical explanation report following the team's failure to qualify for CAN for the second tournament in a row.
"EFA's Executive Committee has asked Bradley to provide a technical report in order to provide reasons for the defeat by CAR and pinpoint the obstacles that he faced," association spokesman Azmi Megahed said in a statement.
"I hope people will pardon Bradley, given that he worked under difficult circumstances after football activities were suspended in the wake of the [1 February] Port Said disaster, which led to a dip in form for players due to the lack of competitive action," Megahed said.
"However, this doesn't mean the technical staff and players should not shoulder some responsibility for what happened. We all must stand shoulder to shoulder to realise the dream of reaching the 2014 World Cup," he added.
Egypt's failure to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup led to the departure of former coach Hassan Shehata. But American boss Bradley is unlikely to suffer the same fate, given Egypt's strong start in its World Cup qualifying campaign under his guidance.
The seven-time African champions collected the maximum six points in Group G after beating Mozambique and Guinea in their first two matches.
"We never discussed the possibility of sacking Bradley," Megahed was quoted as saying by the local media.
Elsewhere, Ahli will have to do without their fans when they host DR Congo's TP Mazembe in their opening African Champions League group-stage game Sunday.
Mazembe, the 2009 and 2010 Champions League winners, have recently demanded that the Confederation of African Football move their scheduled game against Ahli to a venue outside Egypt, in light of prevailing security concerns. However, Ahli has insisted the match be held in Cairo, yet behind closed doors. Since February's Port Said stadium disaster, Egypt's interior ministry has refused to provide security at football games.
"Our fans will not be attending the match," Ahli, the record winners of Africa's premier club competition with six titles under their belt, said in a brief statement published on their website.
Earlier this year, the Interior Ministry set 10 safety "requirements" that must be met by Egyptian clubs if it is to provide security at domestic matches.
Ahli are currently playing in Group B of the Champions League, along with bitter rivals Zamalek, Mazembe and Ghana's Chelsea.