Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

We did it

On Sunday, Inas Mazhar was in Borg Al-Arab Stadium, scene of one of Egypt’s greatest sports achievements — garnering a place in the World Cup


Al-Sisi with the National Team

Twenty-eight years ago this writer, as a young fan, took to the streets of Cairo with friends to celebrate Egypt’s qualification to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. What a day it was. Then, Egypt had beaten Algeria to qualify to the World Cup for the country’s second appearance after 56 years. It was an unforgettable night for a whole nation which had finally realised a long-awaited dream.

Unfortunately, that day remained just a memory for that generation for 28 long years. Egypt never went to the World Cup again, missing the next six editions. During those years, reaching the finals of the World Cup had become a dream never to come true. With every qualification, Egypt would struggle and ultimately fail to reach the final stage. Until last Sunday, that is, when the motto changed. It’s no longer every time “we can do it”. Now it’s “we did it”. Egypt had advanced to the 2018 World Cup in Russia after defeating Congo 2-1 in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria in a nail biter.

So once again, this writer celebrates, not as a fan but as a professional. And this time it was different, more emotional and impressive. It was being there. At the stadium. A precious moment and a bird’s-eye view to witness how the nation’s dream almost slipped away before it was reclaimed with the last touch of the game.

It was a full house at Borg Al-Arab Stadium. Though 60,000 tickets were put on sale for the 80,000-seat stadium, the eventual figure could reach 90,000 or even 100,000. People were everywhere, sitting and standing, on seats, stands and aisles. Some were even seen sitting atop the electronic boards and light posts. They were all loudly supporting the team and urging on the players to win. “World Cup”, “World Cup” was the biggest chant of the evening.

At half time the score was 0-0. People started to get worried and the players started to get tense. The crowds’ roars and moans grew louder as the Pharaohs continued squandering chances to score, until superstar Mohamed Salah netted the opener of the game early in the second half, seizing on a misplayed header by Badila. The fans went wild as the players celebrated.

photo: Mohamed Abdou

Egypt then started to play defence, in no hurry to go upfield. Egypt’s Argentinian head coach Hector Cuper made some changes to secure the one-goal lead when suddenly and with only two minutes to go in the game, Congo stole the Egyptians’ joy and almost destroyed their dream. It was Arnold Bouka Moutou who silenced the cheerful, enthusiastic celebrating spectators in the 88th minute. Moutou had somehow slipped unnoticed to rifle a first-time volley from close range which gave goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadari no chance. It was a shock. The whole stadium went dead silent. Not a word. Not even a breath. As the Egyptian saying goes “Drop a needle and you’ll hear it click”. That was the case. All the happy, smiley, cheerful faces turned black. There were only silent tears rolling down distraught faces. Weeping was evident everywhere, the players on the bench, officials, even the ball boys and security officers and, of course, the fans. The stadium’s giant screen showed a young man weeping in agony. The picture, seen the world over, broke hearts and went viral. The young man, who became an overnight social media star and who turned out to be a vendor and a Zamalek fan, represented all Egyptians. They might not have been filmed but they felt just like him.

No one watching will ever forget those crucial moments. Time was running out and only seconds were remaining. Man of the match Salah fell to the ground in dismay but then stood up to plead to the fans to maintain their support. Only when the fourth referee gave the signal announcing five minutes of injury time did the fans start breathing again. There was still hope.

The crowd roared with every move until substitute Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet was brought down in the box by Beranger Itoua and the Gambian referee pointed to the spot kick. That was when everybody went berserk, but then silent as a cool and confident Salah sent home the winning goal that took Egypt to its third appearance at the World Cup. The coolness of Salah drove BBC’s John Bennett to describe Salah in his tweet saying, “Imagine taking a penalty in the 95th minute which could end 28 year wait for your football mad nation? Salah has nerves of steel.”

The images of the last minutes will remain unforgettable for this generation. And after the referee’s final whistle, the stadium turned into a circus of celebrations as fans and media invaded the pitch to join the party.

The victory gave Egypt an uncatchable four-point lead over Uganda in Group E with one meaningless round of fixtures remaining. Uganda were held 0-0 by Ghana in Kampala Saturday.

Egypt also beat Congo away and Ghana and Uganda at home to accumulate 12 points, with the only loss away to Uganda.

And while the party went on at Borg Al-Arab, Cairo and all other Egyptian cities and villages celebrated all night until the early hours of the following day. Though Monday is a normal business and school day, on Sunday night and up until dawn, in the streets and main squares, it looked like the daily rush hour.

The players remained awake as they continued their celebrations back at the hotel and also because they had to leave Borg Al-Arab early the next morning to meet President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo. Al-Sisi had, immediately after the victory, tweeted a congratulatory message to the Pharaohs. Reports then flew of the president allocating LE1.5 million as prize money to each player for qualifying.

Simultaneously, Governor of Gharbiya Ahmed Sakr changed the name of the Bassioun Industrial Secondary School after Salah who graduated from the school in his home town Bassioun.

The following day, a proud Salah was there to see the unveiling of the new name, the Mohamed Salah Industrial School.

In the meeting, the president congratulated the team for making Egyptians “happy and proud.” The president especially thanked coach Cuper and the team’s biggest star Salah (“thanks Mohamed”) and everyone else involved in the victory.

Egypt made its first World Cup appearance in 1934 in Uruguay and it took the Pharaohs 56 years to make the second visit, in Italy 1990 with the record seven-time African champions suffering numerous heart-breaking failures since.

But on Monday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sent EFA President Hani Abu Rida a message of congratulations.

“Dear Hani, after a 2-1 victory over Congo on Sunday evening in the Borg Al-Arab Stadium in Alexandria, Egypt became the second team from Africa to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, after Nigeria.

“I would like herewith to congratulate you and your national team on this qualification for the biggest single-event sporting competition in the world.

“This is the third qualification to the FIFA World Cup for Egypt, their first appearance at the tournament for 28 years. This achievement is the result of the determination of everyone involved. My sincere congratulations go to the Pharaohs, the coach Hector Cuper, the entire technical and medical staff and the fans,” Infantino wrote.

On the other hand, looked at five factors that proved critical to Egypt’s successful qualification campaign for Russia 2018: the coaching stability; the four main pillars Essam Al-Hadari, Mohamed Abdel-Shafi, Mohamed Al-Nenni and Mohamed Salah whom have not missed a single minute of the third-round qualifying games, showing just how influential they have been in the triumphant journey; the in-form Salah; Al-Hadari’s comeback and the fortress Borg Al-Arab.

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