Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Can we or can't we?

By Inas Mazhar

hisham
Hisham Azmi
He is rarely seen or heard, but nevertheless, Hisham Azmi is one of the architects of Egyptian football. A member of FIFA charged with special duties, Azmi, like most Egyptians, is thinking overtime about next month's African Nations Cup to be hosted jointly by Nigeria and Ghana. Winners of the 1997 cup in Burkina Faso, Egypt enters the tournament as the defending champion but concern is widespread that the team will be unable to duplicate the feat.

"Any team is a threat to us," Azmi told the Al-Ahram Weekly. But he has apparently put his faith in FIFA's world seedings, which place Zambia 31st in the world, Burkina Faso 70 and Senegal at 82 -- the three countries that are pitted with Egypt in Group C. Egypt is currently ranked 38 and is listed among the top five countries on the continent. "None of these three teams have won the cup, but we shouldn't underestimate them because they have shown big progress of late," Azmi, head of international relations in the Egyptian Football Federation, said.

Egypt's African Cup record is impressive, having won it four times -- an achievement it shares with Ghana -- and runners-up once. In the 1998 tournament, Egypt blew Zambia away 4-0 and defeated hosts Burkina Faso 2-0 in the semi-final. But despite the glowing statistics, question marks hang over whether the country can do an encore. Azmi is optimistic, but not overly so. "In Burkina Faso, we had a lucky draw. We met the weakest teams first, then played the toughest games in the final stage. This time Egypt will face the stronger teams first: Zambia (on 23 January), which is a tough start, followed by Senegal (28 January) then Burkina Faso (1 February)."

Even if Egypt was to reach the second round, Azmi said it will most probably meet up with either host Nigeria or Morocco, rated Africa and the Arab world's best team. "And even if we can get by them, we will then probably play Ghana in Accra," Azmi said. In either case, returning home with the trophy will be anything but easy. The situation is complicated by the recent arrival of new French coach Gerard Gili, who, in his first statements to the press made it clear that time was short to properly prepare the team for the African cup. Azmi agreed to an extent but said good preparation was still possible. "He does have time to at least get introduced to Egyptian football."

Gili has said his real target will be the 2002 World Cup and considers the African Cup a springboard to that goal. "I believe the games in Ghana and Nigeria offer a great opportunity to prepare the team for the World Cup, to better evaluate Egyptian football and have a chance to be present among the best 32 teams in the world," Azmi said. Egypt's poor showing in two previous World Cups, in 1934 and 1990, and its inability to qualify most times is put down by Azmi to little playing time in schools, not focusing enough on the national team and changing coaches more times than people change their socks. "We should understand that coaches have the right to work until the end [of their contract] and that they be judged only afterwards."

Though he has no experience in managing countries, Gili -- whose $35,000 a month salary has caused quite a commotion -- has coached three of the top three teams in France: Marseilles, Montpellier and Bordeaux. "I believe that a coach who has met with success with a team like Marseilles is good enough for our national team," Azmi said.

Sixty coaches were in the running for the coaching post, said Azmi. "The time factor was not in our favour because most foreign coaches were engaged either with clubs or national teams. We narrowed the field down to five and luckily we reached an agreement with Gili."

Both Gili and Azmi are former goalkeepers; not surprising then that Azmi is partial to the position. "I believe that the best coach in the game is the goalkeeper especially when he takes instructions from the coach in the changing rooms. When teams march on to the field the only player capable of guiding the players the way the coach wants is the goalkeeper."

Of course, Gili will need more than an intelligent goalkeeper if Egypt is to do well in Nigeria. "Egypt will be facing tough competition," Azmi said. "We are the title holders and everyone will be taking aim." He added that the situation was unlike 1998 when Egypt was given a slight chance of success.

For Egyptian fans, success in Africa means nothing less than winning the cup and Azmi admitted that returning home sans the trophy will not go down well with the public. Evidence of this, Azmi suggests, was found when Egypt failed to reach the 1998 World Cup in France. "It took them time to forget," he said. In what sounded like an ominous apology in advance, Azmi said he believed it the duty of the Egyptian federation to explain to both players and fans that the African championship will be extremely difficult and that while Egypt's chances were not bad, "they are not as they were in Burkina Faso."

One thing in Egypt's favour: it will play its first three matches in the same city, Kano, and the same stadium, an advantage that, Azmi says, not all teams will enjoy. The African federation had decided that some teams would play their third and maybe decisive match in a different city to avoid any possible rigging of match scores.

Azmi was also encouraged by Egypt's performance in two recent friendlies against Ghana and Namibia in Cairo, the first time the national team has played since July's disastrous 5-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in the Confederation Cup in Mexico. "The performance was satisfactory. It was a good start for the team's preparations in the coming period," he said, adding that the European-based players also did well. "They are the mainstay of the team. Playing in European clubs benefits our national team and Egyptian football in general," Azmi added.

Leaving behind the cold facts of winning and losing in professional sports, Azmi became philosophical when talking about the higher and nobler meaning of it all. "Winning or losing is not the goal," he said. "A good performance and friendship among the African federations is just as important."

But Azmi was brought back to earth in a hurry when pressed to assess Egypt's chances. "Let's be realistic," he said. "In the 22 times the cup has been played, not everybody has won it." He hastened to add: "However, this does not mean that these teams are failures."

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