The Egyptian national handball team ran out of fuel in the 2017 world championship in France. After winning the African cup at home, Egyptians dreamt of a return to the glory era, remembering fondly when the team managed to win fourth place in the world championship in France 2001. This year, Egypt came nowhere near those heady times.
Playing in the same hall this year, it was easy for Marawan Ragab, Egypt’s coach, to recall his achievement of 2001 as a player, but he had a much more difficult job to lead the current team as a manager. After seeing Egypt’s performance in the first group stage match against Qatar, the runners-up of the last championship, it was clear the team lacked teamwork, despite their win. They depended on two or three players who made all the difference -- Ahmed Al-Ahmar, Yehia Al-Deraa and Karim Hendawi, or Katonga.
from left: Al-Ahmar, Ibrahim and Hassan frustrated after losing against Croatia
It was also obvious that Ragab did some rearranging since winning the African cup, taking many players off the bus: Felfel Mahmoud, Mohamed Alaa Al-Sayed, Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, Ali Zain, Ahmed Alaa Al-Sayed, Hossam Khedr, and Omar Al-Wakil, nearly a full team, were let go.
Ragab’s reasoning was not clear. Maybe they were all injured, or maybe he was in a bad mood. What is clear is that the team lost its rhythm and harmony. Some players who were added didn’t even get off the bench, like Yehia Khaled Mahmoud, the squad’s youngest player, and Abdel-Rahman Ali who showed up only in the last match against Croatia. Perhaps they were too young to go into battle and Ragab was trying to prepare them for the 2021 World Cup.
Whatever the case, the second match against Denmark was an early test for Ragab’s squad against a big European name. He decided to give Hadi, the second goalkeeper, the start, which didn’t appear to be a good decision as he conceded many goals right from the get-go. His teammates did not help by not returning quickly enough for the fast breaks of the Danish. Because of unforced errors and many errant passes, the gap widened. Even with the improved performance in the second half it was impossible for Egypt to come back in the match, especially after Al-Ahmar was injured.
Because winning the third match against Bahrain was a must to qualify to the second round, the Egyptians started with a solid performance. Ragab learned from his mistake and started with his top six. However, in the closing 10 minutes of the second half, he inexplicably pulled them out and gave the bench a shot. But things went bad. The Bahrainis started closing the gap and in imminent danger, Ragab brought in his injured savior Al-Ahmar back in. Though Egypt won 31-29, it was at this moment that many observers were sure that Egypt was becoming a one-man show. And even that would not last long, with Al-Ahmar’s knee injury.
The 31-26 victory over Argentina was great, but losing against Sweden 33-26 in the last match in the group stage was alarming, not just because of the score but also the massive deterioration in the performance in the partial absence of the golden boy Al-Ahmar.
Without Al-Ahmar starting, Egypt went up against powerhouse Croatia. The players tried to keep up with the Croatians throughout the game but never came close. Near the end, Al-Ahmar went in to help his team on virtually one leg. Egypt’s 21-19 loss helped the team leave the hall with their heads up.
“We can’t win the world championship or hope to do so. It’s unrealistic and difficult.” That’s what Ragab said in an interview before the tournament. So, Ragab apparently had his goal ready before the tournament, which was not to win.
Before the tournament, many players announced they were aiming to reach the quarter-finals. Maybe they, too, should have lowered the bar.