Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What would Egypt do in the World Cup?

Egypt is close to going to the World Cup but once there, it’s not sure whether they can emulate the many Arab and African countries that gave sterling performances on football’s greatest stage, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

 ِEgypt National team
 ِEgypt National team

It’s still premature to talk about Egypt going to next year’s World Cup but the country is almost there. With two games remaining in Group E, Egypt have nine points, Uganda seven, while Ghana lie in third with five points. Congo, with just one point, have been eliminated.

It’s looking good for Egypt. If, on 7 October, the Uganda-Ghana encounter ends in a tie or Ghana win, and Egypt can beat Congo the day after, then the Pharaohs will go to Russia irrespective of the last match.

It is close to certain Egypt will beat lowly Congo in Alexandria; they beat them in Brazzaville in the first leg. Only a Uganda win against Ghana can delay Egypt’s festivities.

It will then go down to the wire. If, in the last qualifying game, Egypt lose to Ghana in Accra in November and Uganda beat Congo in Brazzaville, then Uganda will be making the journey to Russia; Egypt will miss the boat.

There are several more intriguing possibilities but the way it stands now, Egypt stands a better chance of going to the World Cup than at any other time in recent memory. But part two of the story is what will Egypt do if it goes to the World Cup? If they continue to play the way they have been playing, they could easily return from the cup with their tails in between their legs. We had better call a timeout.

Egypt’s last two games in the qualifiers, against Uganda, have been nothing to write home about. In Kampala Egypt lost 1-0 and in Alex Egypt got by 1-0. Both games for Egypt were tepid affairs against a country that had previously never beaten Egypt save once in 20 meetings, going back to 1965.

It was completely unnecessary to lose to Uganda, even if playing on their home turf. The only redeeming quality of the second game were the three valuable points Egypt collected. Other than that, it was a textbook display of how not to play the game. Egypt scored what would prove to be the winning goal in just the seventh minute but after that sensational start, they turned the lights off.

In the second half, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Trezeguet missed a couple of sure goals but the game should never have been so close against a team that has no history of exceptional football whatsoever, club or country.

To state the obvious, everybody wants to go to the World Cup, the showpiece event of the world’s No 1 sport. Arguably few are hungrier than Egypt which have gone to the grand spectacle just twice, the last in 1990. That’s an absence of six consecutive World Cups, much too long for a country that has, in the meantime, won a record seven African championships.

However, while simply going to the World Cup might be a success in itself, once there many Arab and African countries have also given sterling performances.

Many of those African countries which Egypt once swatted away have done wonders in the World Cup. Three reached the quarter-finals. Cameroon opened the 1990 World Cup with one of the tournament’s greatest-ever shocks, defeating the defending champions Argentina. The Indomitable Lions were ahead of England in the quarter-finals before going down 3-2 but not before making their mark on the international stage.

In 2002 Senegal’s opening defeat of reigning world champions France will eternally be remembered as one of the tournament’s most iconic moments. The Teranga Lions went on to the quarters before losing to Turkey.

And Ghana in 2010 were seconds away from a semi-final berth but for Luis Suarez’s goal-line handball in the dying seconds of the quarter-final. The Uruguayan’s actions denied Ghana’s place in the semi-final, as well as history.

Though they never reached the last eight, Nigeria deserve special mention for reaching the second stage twice, in their 1994 debut and 1998.

Egypt’s Arab brethren have also experienced golden World Cup moments. Tunisia became the first Arab country to win a World Cup game when they beat Mexico 3-1 in 1978.

Unfortunately, Algeria were eliminated in the first round in 1982 following collusion between Austria and West Germany.

Morocco finished atop their 1986 group which included European heavyweights England, Poland and Portugal.

Saudi Arabia finished second in the 1994 group stage, thanks in part to Saeed Al-Oweiran’s incredible end-to-end marauding run against Belgium resulted in a stunning individual goal, voted the sixth best of all-time by FIFA.

And at the 2014 tournament in Brazil, Algeria reached the knock-out stage, taking eventual champions Germany to extra-time before losing.

In 1990 in Italy Egypt did surprisingly well with Holland, levelling 1-1 with the then European champions which had the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ronald Koeman. However, Egypt lost the measure of respect they had gained following a lifeless 0-0 draw with the Republic of Ireland and a 1-0 loss to England.

After their game, Irish coach Jackie Charlton blasted Egypt for its defensive-minded play. His scathing remarks: “If you come to the World Cup, you are expected to play; I hate playing teams like Egypt; in all my career as a player and coach I have never seen a team not get a shot on goal throughout the 90 minutes.”

Twenty-seven years later, Charlton’s brutal attacks hold true. Egypt is playing the same overly cautious football – but more blatantly. Argentinian coach Hector Cuper is making the players restrained and constrained, stifling their individual skills, holding the leash too tight. Cuper has straightjacketed the team. They are being confined, their flair and creativity smothered.

Nobody is asking Egypt to forget about defence; a good defence will win you more games than a good offence. But football is not about parking the bus in front of your goal; there are other gears besides reverse. A heads up: you can’t abandon defensive play just like that. You can’t learn attacking football overnight.

With the World Cup in sight, it would be fatal if Cuper were to throw caution to the wind and start relearning his troops how to play more aggressively, especially up front. If the ultra-careful shackled system has gotten them this far, so continue. But on the hopeful day that Egypt enters the World Cup, then a good, hard look at how to get the players to stop playing as if they are walking on egg shells should start the day after.

It’s true that Egypt made it to the finals of this year’s Africa Nations Cup. But the ANC is not the World Cup. And Egypt had major problems with, yes, Uganda, Mali and Burkina Faso, all with zero World Cup appearances. How will Egypt handle powerhouses Germany, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Brazil or Argentina? These countries will not give opponents the time of day or space to play the way they want. Slow-motion football and taking your sweet time to build up an attacking play won’t do. Nice and easy might suit the Egyptian player because of his famed lack of stamina. But it will not get him far.

Going to the World Cup is an incomparable feeling, and after such a marathon wait, Egyptians should savor the moment to the fullest. But it is also a huge responsibility for any team. Success or failure of entire countries is, rightly or wrongly, often associated with their achievement or lack thereof in sport.

The entire world watches the World Cup. That makes it more imperative that you have to do something once you’re there. There are some countries which, if they don’t go to the World Cup, it’s a catastrophe. It’s a tragedy if some don’t win the World Cup. Some don’t mind what they do in the championship as long as they go. Egypt should not be one of those countries. Going for the sake of going might be OK for some teams. But African and other Arab countries have proven that they didn’t go to the World Cup just for the ride.

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