Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Ten things Egypt should do if it wants to win the World Cup

Every team should feel it has a shot at winning a championship, even if it’s as daunting as the World Cup. Egypt should have the same belief, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

 

Egyptian Football Team

Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, making them an elite sporting club. As such, winning football’s biggest extravaganza is far from easy. But not impossible. At least that should be the attitude of the 32 participating countries in Russia.

Like Brazil, Germany and Italy, some countries have a headlock on the World Cup. Others, like France in 1998 and Spain in 2010, were relative latecomers in corralling the trophy, meaning that not too long ago they were able to break the age-old stranglehold of the powerhouses. So it’s not an impossibility that other teams as well can squeeze into this exclusive fraternity.

Let it also not be forgotten that Turkey and South Korea, not well known on the football map, reached the semi-finals of the 2002 edition. Thus, anything is possible.

With all this positive energy in mind and body, Egypt should try to go all the way. The odds are that it won’t but that should not stop it from trying.

The World Cup starts in a week’s time. Below is a how-to manual on how to go about winning the biggest prize in football. If Egypt is truly determined to do the unthinkable, it should:

 

1. Know what to do with and without Mohamed Salah

It might sound awfully strange but it’s true: Egypt does not know what to do with its prized possession Mohamed Salah when he’s playing, and what to do when he’s not. The former situation is extremely odd because any team in the world would kill to have on its roster the best player in the Premier League, its top scorer and a viable candidate for the Ballon d’Or. The problem with Salah in the line-up is that it is very tempting for the players to just give him the ball and ask him to run 70 metres down the field. But that’s not football.

Salah in Egypt is also not the Salah we see in Liverpool. Notwithstanding his heroics against the Congo in the World Cup qualifier, Salah’s impact on the national team is not always apparent, partly because he doesn’t have the same sort of supporting cast in Egypt that he enjoys in Liverpool.

With Salah out due to his shoulder injury, Egypt in friendlies has not been able to come up with alternatives. No player has his speed with the ball and dribbling skills, as well as his ability to use both his pace and flair on the ball in order to beat opponents, and create scoring opportunities for himself or his teammates.

Salah will most likely be unavailable for Egypt’s first game against Uruguay. Even if he joins the team for the remaining two group matches, it’s not certain how fit he will be.

Coach Hector Cuper still hasn’t decided how to play with or without Salah, and time has just about run out.

 

2. Solve its goalkeeping dilemma

Egypt has three goalkeepers and each one has a problem. Essam Al-Hadari, at 45, has a ton of caps under his belt but the reflexes are going. Mohamed Al-Shinnawi has played in exactly two international friendlies and made glaring mistakes in each. Sherif Ekrami is a veteran but is rusty, having warmed up the bench for his club for the better part of the season. Cuper has a big decision to make.

 

3. Not going for the ride

For the lesser lights in football, it used to be that just going to the World Cup was enough. Not anymore. From this part of the world, Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana reached the quarter-finals. No Arab team has gone that far, but Tunisia in 1978, Algeria 1982, Morocco 1986 and Saudi Arabia in 1994 all played marvelous football, upending the world order. For the immense talent they possessed and the upsets they created, many African and Arab countries set the footballing world alight. Egypt 2018, too, should leave an indelible mark. Egypt had a decent 1990, holding then European champions and favourites Holland to a 1-1 draw. This time, Egypt should shoot for the stars. Aiming just for lampposts will not suffice.


Egyptian players in the World Cup

 

4. Vanquish its Arab demons

Egypt has historically had difficulties playing against its Arab brothers. Maybe that’s because Egypt, as a pioneer of the sport in the Arab world, used to be so much better. It was seen and viewed itself as Big Brother. But times have changed drastically. A mix of these countries greatly improving and Egypt not advancing in tandem, has pretty much levelled the playing field. The North African trio of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria gives Egypt nightmares even when they are playing at their worst and Egypt at its best. The same holds true for the Arab Gulf. Even recently against Kuwait, a team that has not played in over two years after being banned by FIFA for government interference, Egypt could only muster a 1-1 draw. From that region comes Saudi Arabia which is placed with Egypt in the same group. In their last encounter, in 1999 in the Confederation Cup, the Saudis destroyed Egypt 5-1. Since then, Egypt has been licking its wounds but to avenge its defeat, to beat the Kingdom, Egypt must use its head more than its heart.

 

5. Top its group

Any team which wants to stand on the highest podium must sooner or later play the biggest guns. There is no escaping them; there’s nowhere to hide. That said, because Egypt is new at trying to win a World Cup, it’s best to take it one step at a time. In Group A, Egypt is reportedly planning to lose against Uruguay, tie Russia and beat Saudi Arabia for four points that should get it into the second round. But what Egypt should really be trying for is topping the group. That way, it will play the team that finishes second in Group B, composed of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Iran. Better to finish first in Group A, thus avoiding probable Group B winners Spain, a difficult proposition for Egypt. Not that facing Portugal, a probable second place finisher, will be much better. But a few months back we lost to Portugal by a whisker. Avoiding Spain, a former World Cup and twice European champion, will give Egypt some respite before it goes any further.  

 

6. Make the most of the moment

In Russia, Egypt will be making only its third World Cup appearance. The last was 1990 and you would have to go back to 1934 for its debut. Since Egypt does not go to the World Cup every other day, it should make the most of this appearance. That entails playing its heart out. When Egypt and the Republic of Ireland played to a dour 0-0 draw in the 1990 World Cup, thanks mainly to Egypt rarely straying out of its own end and constantly returning the ball to its goalkeeper who could handle it when that was still allowed, Irish coach Jackie Charlton had choice words for Egypt in the post-game press conference: “If you have qualified for the World Cup, you should at least play.” In order not to receive another such bruising assessment, Egypt should play as if this will be its last World Cup for a long time coming. And given Egypt’s World Cup track record, maybe there will be no more World Cups on the horizon.

 

7. Not waste chances

From beginning to end, a country must play seven matches to reach the final of a World Cup. That small number of games means that every match counts, as does every minute and second in it. There is very little margin for error. The World Cup does not stretch for a 38-game season in which a team can make numerous gaffes and still come out on top. When opportunity knocks in the form of a possible goal, it must be seized, simply because in the World Cup there won’t be that many chances. Conversely, because there are not that many matches, smaller teams can do well. It’s like cup games in which David can beat Goliath in any single match. Egypt can win a match or two by being the underdog, the giant killer. But there will come a time when Egypt will have to be Atlas.

 

8. Be much more creative

It is obvious to all by now that Cuper has fashioned a team that does not want to lose. But in doing so he has created a team that does not know how to win. In the four friendlies so far, with star-studded Belgium still to go at the time of writing, Egypt has lost twice and drawn twice. The Argentine’s extra cautious defensive play, even against weaker opposition, has made the players too frightened to come out of their shell. It’s an old adage that you can’t win without a strong defence. A leaky back four can undo the work of the best forwards. But there’s a limit to everything. Our strikers take the ball up to the penalty area but instead of going for goal, send the ball back 30 metres. If Egypt cannot play a more attacking-minded game, make optimum use of counterattacks, it will be an early shower for its players. Up front, Egypt must do the unexpected, not keep to staid, pat formations. Forget telegraphed passes and don’t rely all the time on crosses from the wings in the hope the ball lands on a forward’s head. Egypt usually depends on their opponents making a mistake rather than taking the initiative. Egypt must conjure up some magic of its own making.

 

9. Play as if nobody’s watching

It’s not easy playing in front of 80,000 frenzied spectators, whether they are for or against you. It needs focus, as if there are no fans. Since 2012, Egypt’s clubs and national team have indeed been playing to empty stands, a result of the domestic league football riot which killed 72 people. For security reasons, only a handful of matches have been played to full houses; the majority is played behind closed doors. While most of Egypt’s first-team footballers play abroad and consequently are used to playing in front of vociferous crowds, there are a few local players who have either forgotten what it was like to play in front of the masses or never experienced it. They’re in for a shock if they don’t adapt quickly. They should try to drown out the noise.  

 

10. Stay calm

In addition to stadium cacophony, the pressure will be huge. This is football’s biggest stage. The whole world is watching. All of Egypt is watching and desperately hoping (not to mention 25,000 Egyptians who are going to Russia on packages worth at least LE50,000).

In the four friendlies that Egypt thus far played in the build-up to the World Cup, it was obvious that the players lack self-confidence. Against Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodríguez, Egypt’s players were more observers than participants. While it’s true that being on the same pitch with the stars we normally see only on TV would shell-shock even the most hardened veterans, those were friendlies. It won’t get easier in the World Cup. The more you advance, the more those neon names shine brighter.

Egypt’s players must believe in themselves, be masters of their destinies.

They must show the passion and the desire and the will to want to go out there and do the best they can.

Shaky teams don’t win World Cups. The ones that do are confident of their abilities, even, and especially, in games in which they are trailing. Don’t fall apart if the opposition scores first. One of the big tests is whether teams can come from behind to win.

When the whistle blows, all teams are equal. They start at 0-0. It’s what happens after that which separates the bad from the good from the great.

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