Sunday,18 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Sunday,18 November, 2018
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The moment we’ve all been waiting for

It was not one of their best games and it’s not one of their best teams but Egypt is going to the 2018 World Cup. So for now, all is forgiven, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

 

Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah

The buzz in Egypt started Saturday. Uganda and Ghana had tied in Group E of the African qualifiers, opening the door for Egypt to go to the 2018 World Cup in Russia if they could beat Congo the next day in Alexandria.

The task seemed easy enough. Congo had already been eliminated with just one point and Egypt had beat Congo in Brazzaville in the first leg.

But Sunday’s game was no walk in the park. It took Egypt 63 minutes to score their first goal through Liverpool star Mohamed Salah. And just when it was thought that would be the game winner, up popped up Congo’s tying goal by Arnold Bouka Moutou on the 88th minute, the worst possible time for an opposing team to try for an equaliser or a winner.

It looked like Egypt’s World Cup fate would be delayed – and maybe derailed – as they would need to beat Ghana in Accra in the final group game.

It didn’t come to that. Salah sealed the deal with a huge pressure penalty in injury time. And just like that, the 2-1 win sent Egypt to the World Cup.

Actually, it wasn’t just like that. Egypt’s last appearance on football’s world stage was in 1990. In those 27 years, Egypt missed six World Cups. Every absence was a heartbreak and every one had a reason standing in the way: Ghana, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Morocco and Zimbabwe.

In contrast, Egypt has a record seven African cups, four coming during this over quarter century absence from the World Cup. Why we do so well in Africa but cannot beat the same foes on the same continent for a World Cup ticket is a mystery. The best guess is that the Africa Cup of Nations is six matches played in three weeks. World Cup qualifiers are also just six matches but take an eternity to play. The away victory in Congo, for example, was played in October 2016. The theory is that the former tournament is a quick short spell; in the latter, a lot can happen in a year that can damage a team – a drop in a player’s form, a serious injury, a change of coaches.

What’s just as amazing is when the World Cup was taking just two African countries, we made it in 1990. When FIFA added one more African country, in 1998, then five beginning in 2002, we were shut out. Egypt did the hard part but became invisible when it got easier.

But who cares?  All the past grief was buried in Sunday’s wild street celebrations, as mass euphoria made way for mass hysteria. The win against Congo, especially Salah’s brace which was replayed incessantly, was the talk in every inch across the country, lighting up social media, making banner headlines on the front pages and becoming the No 1 item on broadcast news. So desperate we were to qualify for the World Cup, the party felt like we had won the whole thing altogether. Even President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi sought a piece of the action, personally greeting the team the very next morning.

So what does it mean to win? Much has been written about the effects of winning on national psyche. Patriotism is the common answer. Wrapping up in the colours of the nation. But that show of devotion and loyalty to flag and country does not necessarily rationalise the elation that comes with victory.

The well-known sports axiom “winning isn’t everything” is all too true. Underneath the street confetti, ascension to the World Cup will not put meat on the table. It won’t pay those light bulb bills, won’t fill the gas tank. It won’t increase a pension already meagre. It won’t send your child to that fancy language school. It won’t fix the apartment cracks. It won’t buy an apartment.

It will not stop Islamic State. It will not stop prices from doubling and tripling. It will not stem systemic corruption. It will not persuade people to care about one another. It will not decrease increasing poverty and moral decay. It will not repair societal relations that have broken down in much of our society. It will not shake off the widespread feeling of discontent. Flag-waving and car-tooting and kumbaya-singing are not the panacea for the ills of society or the ill in society.

Football is a distractive pastime, a diversion from the harsh realities of life, satiating a human need for amusement and leisure, especially in hard times, yet has no power of its own accord to change entire lives. For many, for millions, it doesn’t mean a thing.

Most peculiar about Sunday’s victory is its complete lack of impact on our immediate and literal bread and butter life – yet we celebrate.

And why not? Whether you’re well off or trying to make ends meet, it’s nice to win. It’s fun. It’s a feel-good feeling, even if fleeting.

A couple of more days and the reverie will die down, to be replaced with the more solemn perspective of what Egypt will do in Russia. We have talked before about how it’s not just about reaching the World Cup but what you’re going to do once you get there, how just going to the World Cup is not an end in itself and how several other Arab and African countries in past tournaments exceeded all reasonable expectations.

“Maybe we don’t play beautiful football but we are at the World Cup and that’s the most important thing.” The speaker was Egypt’s Argentinian coach Hector Cuper whose own words after Sunday’s win are damming evidence of his sterile style. Cuper has been heavily criticised for his extra-careful, go-slow approach that hampers any sort of creativity his players might have.

This dead ball method might suit this current squad which, save for Salah and veteran goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadari, lacks star power. It’s certainly not the team of 1990 which held then European champions and World Cup favourites Holland to a 1-1 draw. By holding their own against Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rikaard and Ronald Koeman, that team became the benchmark by which all other Egyptian outfits are measured against. The present crop of players also can’t hold a candle to their more recent predecessors who won the Africa Cup a record three times in succession starting in 2006.

As such, Cuper, who has admitted taking medication for high blood pressure, has not done badly with the hand he has been dealt, taking the team early this year to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations and now, to bigger and better things. This, as football in the country has struggled with the aftermath of two revolutions – the Port Said tragedy, the league cancelled and fans banned from national team games.

Cuper had a ghost to rest. Twice in a row he lost Champions League finals while at Valencia and the Italian Serie A on the final day of the season while at Inter Milan. After defeating Congo, his blood pressure should now be a healthy 120/80.

Egypt, too, has slain the dragon. Trying and failing half a dozen times to go to the World Cup had become psychologically traumatising experiences for the team and its supporters. But on Sunday 8 October the team made possible what had become seemingly impossible.   

When Egypt used to aim, it usually hit just a street lamp. Today it struck the stars.

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