The Mystery of ?the Pharaohs

By David Giraud-N'Tentembo

Posted on Sunday, 4 July 2010 08:16

Egypt is champion of the

continent with seven wins at the African Cup of Nations including the

most recent in 2010, but they can’t seem to qualify for the World Cup.

They have only played at in the event twice in 70 years.

On 18 November 2009 in Khartoum, Egypt found themselves 1-0 down to Algeria at the end of the tie-breaking play-off for the 2010 World Cup. Their distress was no surprise. A few weeks before winning their seventh African Cup of Nations (ACN) in Angola, the Pharaohs, who dominate the continent, had to give up on the World Cup once again, having only participated on two occasions: in 1934 and in 1990. This was particularly galling as this will be the first World Cup to take place on African soil.

And yet, in Luanda on the 31 January 2010, when his team had just beaten Ghana (1-0) for a third consecutive ACN, Hassan Shehata, 60, betrayed his usual reserve, proclaiming: “It’s the best team Egypt has ever had, from any generation. Three titles in a row – it would be hard to do better!” In this moment of euphoria for Shehata, coach since 2004, no one dared ask him the question that might have burst his bubble: how can a team that has been so successful in Africa have so much trouble booking its ticket to the World Cup?

It’s a mystery to many. Egypt has a tried and tested formula: a coach from the region, a way of playing that works on African terrain and a strong backbone of players, the majority of whom are local. Out of the 23 players selected for Angola, only Abdul-Zaher Al-Saqqa (Eskisehirspor, Turkey), Hosni Abd Rabo (Al-Ahly, Dubai) and Mohamed Zidan (Borussia Dortmund, Germany) were expatriates. The others have emerged from Egyptian teams: Al-Ahly, Zamalek, ENPPI and Ismailiya.

It was in the 80s that Egypt began to put in place the building blocks of a coherent sports policy. Contrary to Cameroon, with its armada of ‘pros’ leaving for Europe, Egypt relied on players that had stayed in the country to win the Africa Cup of Nations (ACN) in 1986. The success spread to the clubs, with Zamalek and Al-Ahly collecting continental trophies. While they were on a winning streak the Pharaohs, managed by Mahmoud El Gohary, even qualified for the 1990 World Cup, eliminating their eternal Algerian rivals.

After the 1998 ACN victory, with El Gohary once again in ?charge of the thriving team, came Al-Ahly’s triumph. The club won the most titles on the continent with six victories at the CAF Champions League, including four since 2000.

It was the glorious debut of the exceptional generation of Ahmed Hassan, Essam El-Hadary and ?Mohamed Aboutreika. Despite its recent World Cup setback, the Egyptian model still inspires Africa. When he assumed his new role as president of the Senegalese Federation, Augustin Senghor didn’t hesitate in citing Egypt as an example to be followed.


Egypt and the world cup?

1930 Invited. Forfeit

1934 Qualified after two wins (7-1, 4-1) against Palestine under British mandate. Eliminated by Hungary (2-4) in the first round ?

1938 Didn’t play?1950 Didn’t play

1954 Reached the second round?

1958 Reached the second round?

1962 Forfeit

1966 Forfeit. No African teams?

1970 Forfeit in first round?

1974 Reached the preliminary round

1978 Reached the preliminary round?

1982 Reached the preliminary round?

1986 Reached the preliminary round

1990 Qualification at the expense of the Algerians (0-0, 1-0). Last of their group ?

1998 Reached the preliminary round?

2002 Reached the preliminary round?

2006 Reached the preliminary round

2010 Eliminated by Algeria (0-1) in a tie-breaker

Nevertheless, Egypt should think seriously about why they didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup, despite a qualifying group that was largely within their reach. Rwanda and Zambia didn’t pose a threat to any-?one, leaving only Algeria, who didn’t make the ACN in 2006 or 2008 and didn’t have any conclusive club results. Hassan Shehata has never ?liked facing North African teams, as the Egyptians have nearly always given way to their neighbours in ?similar situations, to the Tunisians in 1974, 1978 and 1998, and to the Moroccans in 1982 and 1986.

Some think he didn’t sound the alarm strongly enough before the decisive match against Algeria. “We were overconfident,” said Magdi Abdelghani, 50, former Pharaohs captain (34 goals in 93 selections, including the one against Ireland in the 1990 World Cup). “Before the game in Khartoum, the players, ?managers, supporters and media were all convinced they would win,” he said ruefully.

It is also indisputable that the clear defeat by Algeria (1-3) last June in the cauldron of Blida dampened the spirits of the Egyptian team – even if this was offset by a miraculous return match (2-0) during the last qualifier played in Cairo, in a dreadful atmosphere. For the Pharaohs, the trip to the play-off in Sudan was to be only blip.

“I was alarmed to see the ecstatic comments which made this team seem untouchable,” says Frenchman Claude le Roy, former coach of the Congolese team, who met the team at the 2006 ACN. “I had the feeling that the team has been in decline and ageing since 2006. Even if the Egyptian team deserved the victory in Angola, the Ghanaians could have won the final.” ?

For his part, Joseph Antoine Bell, Cameroon’s former goalkeeper, thinks that Egypt largely deserve their success. Their typical team of the event had players that outshone the others in five out of eleven positions.

A tournament team??

In the 70s, Egypt already had a reputation for being a talented team, although mentally fragile. Another Frenchman, Gerard Gili, who became Egypt’s manager in 2000, claims “the media pressure paralyses the Pharaohs at the make-or-break stage of these matches.”?

Chawki Gharib, Shehata’s right arm, is more concrete when it ?comes to diagnosis. “It is easier for us to manage a tournament, because we have 23 players at our disposal,” he says. “For a World Cup qualifier you can’t make use of all the elements you need. And time is in short supply to prepare for these sorts of games.”

“When we have a month with the players,” adds Abdelghani, “we can monitor a healthy lifestyle and concentrate on working as a team. That is not the case for matches where we only have a few days.”

Is the winner of ACN 2010, a large competition with four World Cup-qualifying teams (Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria and Ghana), actually more of a tournament team? This hypothesis doesn’t solve the problem, nor reassure Egyptian supporters, who are already dreaming of following the Pharaohs to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s World Cup 2010 edition in May.

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