Part 1- Tragedy to Talent
These are heady times for the Egyptian national team. They have qualified for their first World Cup appearance in nearly 30 years and their talisman, Mohamed Salah, has been setting the world on fire. He was voted the PFA Player of the Year, is on the precipice of breaking the Premier League’s goal record and is playing with his team, Liverpool, in the semi-finals of the biggest club competition in the world, the Champions League.
In addition, Egypt drew a favourable group for the group stages of the World Cup. Although no team will be a walkover, the likes of Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia appear less daunting than the superpowers of Germany, Spain, France, Argentina and Brazil.
But what can fans attribute such success to? Coaching and tactics? Manager Héctor Cúper is certainly a factor who, despite the funny glasses, is a serious coach with an impressive resume, his most significant achievement coming with Valencia in back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001.
He also took Internazionale to the semi-finals of the same competition in 2002/03. The lustre of these accomplishments may have waned by the time he arrived in Egypt a decade later, but there is no denying his resume outshines most of his recent predecessors in the position, bar Hassan Shehata.
Although fans have decried his defensive style, he, like the platonic ideal of the pragmatic, results-driven José Mourinho, has got the job done. The World Cup will test his team’s mettle, but after such a long wait Egypt are just happy to be there.
The brilliance of Salah has also eben a recent factor. Much has been written, and much more will be written, about Egypt’s shining star, and rightly so. Although it started as a tongue-in-cheek jest of jocular Liverpudlians and sardonic Egyptians, each game he plays this year makes the moniker ‘Egyptian Messi’ seem just a little less ridiculous. Heading into the World Cup, perhaps only Cristiano Ronaldo is in better form.
Most fortuitously for the Pharaohs, Salah’s form for his club is matched by his form for the national team. His ever-growing talent is paired with a dutiful dedication to the side that would make any Egyptian proud. He knows they, and the whole of the football-mad country, are relying on him, and he relishes it.
Perhaps the greatest example remains his unflappable burying of the penalty needed to send Egypt to the finals. His importance to the side is immeasurable. Without him, the defensive setup of Cúper becomes a straightjacket, tightening with every well placed Mohamed Elneny backpass. But is that a bit too harsh on Cúper and his team? As we have seen, the volume of Jürgen Klopp’s heavy-metal football goes down two decibels when anyone deputizes the man from Gharbia.
Luck, it seems, has also played its p[art in Egypt’s resurgence. This factor gets overlooked in most analyses because it’s uncomfortably unquantifiable. It is easier to say it was the tactics, the talent, the fighting spirit and the statistical indicators than to credit Lady Luck. But for a game where one goal can make a world of difference, luck is bound to rear its troublesome head.
In the case of Egypt, it may be that they got a little lucky – and that’s absolutely fine. Having watched for years hoping for a World Cup trip, it has been astounding how one of Africa’s big guns has missed out on the biggest prize. They would win the Africa Cup of Nations and then blow the World Cup qualifying in one way or another. Some attributed this to a mental deficiency, but that seems to be the claim of fans and pundits hard done by in an especially difficult qualifying region.
Each of these played a role, no doubt, in Egypt’s ascent but the decisive reason is that from top to bottom this is the most battled-tested roster the nation has had in recent memory. The term golden generation gets thrown around when a long-suffering squad makes a jump in level, but I don’t think that is the case here.
I would argue that this is not even the best Egyptian team most fans have seen in their lifetimes. That would be the squad that won three straight Africa Cup of Nations between 2006 and 2010 carried by the likes of Ahmad Hassan, Mohamed Aboutrika, Wael Gomaa, and Essam El-Hadary. No, they are not a golden generation, but they are the readiest to play on the big stage.
Check in tomorrow afternoon for Part 2-