Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Best of all

The African Football Confederation awards proved Egyptian football is at its peak, reports Inas Mazhar


Egypt was not only present at the African football annual awards gala but were massive winners as well. In Accra, Ghana, on Thursday 4 January the Egyptians were impressively victorious, winning the top three awards of men’s football.

The Pharaohs were named the national team of the year and their Argentina-born head coach Hector Cuper coach of the year and the team’s superstar Mohamed Salah the player of the year.

Egypt was nominated for four awards including Ahly for the best club of the year, but that went to the African champions Wydad of Casablanca.

The Egyptians had a glorious year in 2017, starting with an impressive performance at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon earlier in the year which saw them reach the final before entering a successful campaign towards qualifying for the World Cup in Russia this summer. Traditionally, the winner of the African trophy would be declared the team of the year as well as its coach. But the Egyptians’ incredible comeback to the African football circuit after last winning the Africa Cup of Nations seven years ago, and its qualification to the World Cup after 28 years convinced the 53 federations who cast their votes.


“It has been a great year for us and we truly deserved it on all levels,” said EFA President Hani Abu Rida. “We have worked so hard in the federation towards developing and reviving Egyptian football so it would regain its glory. It has been a lot of devotion and hard work on all levels and it has actually paid off with all those awards. It is not only the results that matter in the end, but the effort to come back. That was the real success and the voters appreciated that,” Abu Rida told Al-Ahram Weekly.

It wasn’t the first time the Egyptians have been decorated by CAF for their achievements. The Pharaohs and their coaches have many times scooped up awards. It was only the African Player of the Year title that had always eluded the Egyptians. Only once, in 1983, did they win it in the person of Mahmoud Al-Khatib, now president of his former club Ahly. Other than that, the African player award appeared to be restricted to European-based African players.

In 2012, former Ahly forward Mohamed Abu Treika won the best African home-based player of the year but that was just about it.

This year, Salah forced a change as he etched his name into football history after being crowned African Player of the Year for 2017 and weeks before named the BBC African Player of the Year. Both pieces of news made headlines worldwide, considering it another step for the Liverpool star in his quest for a place in football history.

“If I can win this award twice, three, four times and even 20 times, I want to win it. This award is especially for me and my country and for all of the kids in Africa,” Salah said after receiving his trophy.

“Being in the Premier League is good but don’t forget I was, let’s say, the star of the team in my two good seasons in Roma. I have always wanted to be here. I put myself under pressure and took risks. And this year has been good. I want to be the best Egyptian player in history.”

The 25-year-old picked the topmost prize at the Aiteo CAF Awards Gala. Salah fended off opposition from club-mate Sadio Mane of Senegal and Gabonese Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, winner in 2015. He polled 625 points, against 507 from Mane whilst Aubameyang finished a distant third with 311 points.

The Pharoahs

Salah’s prize sent traditional and social media into a frenzy but not before some controversy. Supporters of Salah claim the CAF trophy is more significant than that of Al-Khatib. The CAF trophy belongs to the continent’s official governing body while Al-Khatib was crowned by France Football magazine back then.

The truth is the French magazine trophy came long before CAF started its own award. The argument drove widely read Egyptian sports critic Hassan Al-Mistikawi to settle the dispute, declaring that both players are the pride of the nation and that Salah had simply won the trophy under a new name.
Salah’s feat capped a superb year for the forward who played an influential role for both club and country during the year under review. His win was sensed in his words, gestures and in the energy with which he shares his opinions. Then again, he has every reason to be proud, having guided Egypt to their first FIFA World Cup since 1990.

But there is more. Cuper, the veteran Argentinian coach who has managed such storied clubs as Inter Milan and Valencia, seems to have found his true self once more at the helm of the Pharaohs, saying: “I’ve felt like a football coach again.”

But just how has he engineered this success in North Africa? The 62-year-old revealed to the things that helped his side reach Russia 2018 and which he hopes will enable them to play a major part in the tournament.

First humility, then everything else. “It’s been hugely satisfying to have found such a great bunch of players with so much humility. Nowadays, it’s tough to find that kind of thing in football, where everyone is a star or a celebrity. Yes, there are stars here too, but the peculiarities and customs here have made me feel good. I’ve felt like a real football coach.

“Often when you try to convince someone of something, it is difficult, as players have certain idiosyncrasies and hierarchies. And yet, here humility and discipline have prevailed. That’s what has brought us success. It’s about the coexistence of those factors and everyone pulling in the same direction.”

Reliable defending is the top priority. “The first thing we noticed on arrival was that the team lacked some dependability in terms of defensive duties. Modern football requires you to play the game well, which means keeping possession of the ball and constantly passing and moving. However, in football you also have to defend well, and it was that aspect that characterised the national team.

“I knew we’d score at least once, and sometimes more than once, against teams, but the intention was to try not to concede goals, and it worked out. Perhaps if it hadn’t, we’d have been criticised for being ‘too defensive, etc, etc’. But the reality was the team hadn’t been to a World Cup for 28 years. Maybe it’s not dazzling football, but we’re a humble, hardworking and disciplined team that pays attention to the small details that decide games.”

Asked about the in-form Liverpool striker Salah, Cuper said: “What’s most notable about the role of Mohamed Salah is that he was just another player. What do I mean by that? Well, he scored the majority of the goals but worked and ran just like everyone else. For him it’s always been about the group and he gets no special privileges. That might seem like a small detail but it’s a very significant one.

“He’s an enormously talented yet very modest player. People often say the national team is ‘Salah and 10 others’ to which I reply, ‘maybe that’s true as he’s someone who can win a match for you, but also because he just sees himself as another player’. That’s something both him and his team-mates understand very well. There have been no ego problems whatsoever.

“The best thing about my experience in Egypt is that it made me more humble. We coaches have a certain arrogance about us, telling people ‘this is the way it’s done’ or ‘I’ve been doing it for years’. In contrast, here I feel like one more member of the team and that I have to explain and convince people of things, not order them around. I have to do it without raising my voice.

“As such, I’ve had to come down off my pedestal a bit and stop telling people who I’ve coached and what I’ve achieved. I’ve accepted that I’m simply a football coach with a goal to achieve, and that I have to be the most supportive and understanding person so that things go well.”

Cuper said he felt at one with the fans. “The public is thrilled, to the point of getting a little carried away in their enthusiasm. Now they are convinced we will progress from the group phase [in Russia]. I was in a supermarket the other day and someone said to me, ‘we can win the World Cup’. And sure, there’s no law to stop us from doing that, so we’re going to try. Of course, I cannot tell people, ‘No, it’s impossible’, but anyway, our task will not be easy. We need to know who we are to get that across to the public.

“We are going to face some very strong teams, and I’m sure we’ll perform well. We have a large squad and we’re working on minimising our shortcomings. In the World Cup, the smallest mistake could cost you a game, so we’ll be trying to keep them to an absolute minimum. That way the public will continue to be happy with us, because we have an incredible relationship with them and we do not want to damage it.”

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