Unity key for Pharaoh pair
Earning plaudits against fancied Brazil in their opener, Egypt - Africa's champions twice running - added grit and metal to their masterful technique to beat world champions Italy in their last outing. These Pharaohs are a bit special, and they have become one of the darlings of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup with a squad made up primarily of domestic-based players.
FIFA.com caught up with the North Africans for a chat at late-night training on the dusty outskirts of Rustenburg and posed the question: what makes this impressive Egyptian team tick?
"Amr Zaki and Hossam Mido are very important players in Egyptian football, big players," Mohamed Aboutrika, widely regarded as the best playmaker in African football, told FIFA.com about the high-profile, England-based duo. "But they are not here [Zaki is injured and Mido was left out]. The players we do have are the best in Egypt and the sense of unity in this team is something special, something rare in international football.
"We are not just a collection of very good individuals, but we are one... one team," added Al Ahly legend Aboutrika, beloved throughout Africa for his vision and languid creativity, before jogging over to a large crowd of locals in Maruleng to take the lead in an impromptu sing-song session, sign autographs, shake hands and pose, always smiling, for photographs.
The spirit of togetherness in the Egyptian camp is obvious from their understanding on the pitch, almost telepathic with Aboutrika dictating the patterns and pace. With only the USA standing between them and the semi-finals, the Pharaohs, with 19 of their 23 players from the domestic top flight, are banking on this seemingly unbreakable team ethic to see them through.
Off the pitch the spirit of togetherness is just as strong. The entire squad prays together five times a day - the first, a dawn prayer at 5:30am. They play EA Sports FIFA 09 on Sony PlayStation (veteran Ahmed Hassan is rumoured to be the best) and pass time in a regular Backgammon tournament that began last year in Ghana when they beat the continent's best to earn their second consecutive African title.
"The spirit is hard to describe," said rarely used midfielder Mohamed Homos, a surprise inclusion at the start of the competition. "My teammates made me feel comfortable from the start," said the 29-year-old, one of five Ismaily players in the side. "They are the best players and the best people I know. Their support is unbelievable. I never feel out of place in the team because they treat me like I've been around for ages."
Head coach Hassan Shehata, who took over the reins in late 2004, is now the longest-serving coach in Egyptian national team history, and his presence in the technical area has acted to balance a side that, historically, has suffered from instability and inconsistency despite producing consistently talented players. He has had access to nearly his entire squad for over a year, and the resulting cohesiveness is exceptional among the teams here in South Africa.
Shehata, a former international, is not afraid to take chances either. He famously benched Mido in the 2006 African finals, and his replacement - Amr Zaki - proved a revelation in their run to the title. Here in South Africa, he outraged the Egyptian media by replacing captain and all-time caps leader Hassan with the untested Homos against Italy. "When I saw my name in the starting list for the Italy game I was shaking with happiness," the player said. He repaid the manager's faith with an historic goal in the 40th minute. With the help of goalkeeper Essam el Hadary, who plays in Switzerland, the lone strike stood up in a slim 1-0 win. One of the first men up off the bench to embrace Homos after the final whistle was Hassan, visibly moved by his replacement's contributions.
Shehata will likely have to rely on one more domestic-based player in the final Group B match against the US on Sunday. Team doctors have confirmed that Germany-based Mohamed Zidan, scorer of two goals against Brazil, will miss out with a hamstring strain.
A win for the Pharaohs in this, the first-ever meeting between the two nations, would mean a place in the semi-finals for this unified squad. Smiles turn to stern, sober talk when the conversation turns to the upcoming match in Rustenburg. "It is decisive for us," concluded Aboutrika with a serious nod, turning away from his adoring fans for a brief moment. "What we did before won't matter if we don't play well against the US. If we want to be in the semi-finals we must focus."