While England’s 20th squad member James Milner was banging in the winner for club Leeds United at the weekend, Egypt’s own star Hosni Abd Rabo was missing Ismaili’s African Champions League final to play for his country. And encouraged by a huge local Egyptian support the 19-year-old led them to a decisive 1-0 victory against the young Lions in the crunch Group D match. Now the midfielder, regarded by many as one of the greatest young talents in Africa, is ready to propel Egypt all the way, beginning on Friday when they take on Japan to secure a berth in the last 16.

The drama had been played out behind closed curtains. To many of the Egyptians, who had flocked to the Al Maktoum stadium in Dubai from all corners of the Emirates and further afield, the story had not been told. Ismaili, on the brink of a first Champions League glory, were desperate to hold onto Abd Rabo as well as fellow midfielder Ahmed Fahti for the crucial first leg tie against Enyimba in Nigeria. In fact, so desperate were the Egyptian club, that there were rumours of late night activity within the young Pharaohs camp only resolved long and late into the night by hard negotiation on behalf of the Federation.

A day before Ismaili were defeated 2-0 in Aba, Colombia had edged an entertaining goalless draw in Egypt’s opening fixture.

We played under pressure, I was not at my best,” said Abd Rabo honestly after the match before sending a message to the passionate supporters. ”The fans made us want to win. They should come again and this time, I promise I will be focused.”

Masterclass
And so Abd Rabo ran out in the second match with his mind cleared up and his purpose resolved. And for the next 90 minutes, the midfielder led by example, giving the English team a masterclass in how to carry the weight of a match on his young shoulders. With his surging runs, fierce shots, sublime through balls, inch-perfect distribution while always being there when needed in defence, the player was at the heart of everything and in the hearts of everyone as the legions of supporters implored “Come Hosni, come”.

“That was much better,” he smiled at the end of the match. “Today was good. I did what I wanted to do.”

Egypt’s coach Hassan Shehata appeared equally delighted:“Hosni was very nervous in the first match and it showed, but today he had a point to prove and played with confidence. Every team has a star and he is one of ours.”

mmeasurable in their thousands, another star in the stadium that is home to Al Ahly club were the fans. Well before kick off they created a din of noise that became deafening every time Egypt went close. They were large, loud but also playful and in festival mood on UAE’s national day. Colourfully attired, pockets sporting fez hats, the now customary wave began barely minutes after kick off. Faster and faster it circled the ground as the supporters sang out “Ya Ahla esm felwogod ya masr” (Oooh the best name in the world, oooh it is Egypt) and “Come and see, come and see – we are the fairest”.

With only a fraction of the supporters attending the Colombia match, the vast numbers of Egyptians attending the England game certainly surprised organisers. Reports suggested that more fans were cheering outside the stadium than the 12,000 crammed inside.

Guilt trip
“We felt a bit guilty because we hadn’t come for the first match,” explained one smiling Egyptian. “I think we made up for it today though.”

Another family had come from Abu Dhabi to cheer on the young Pharaohs.

“We wanted to win against England after 1990 (FIFA World Cup),” said the father laughing. “England have good luck in big tournaments but we have it in the smaller world cups.”

“They must have courage,” the mother shouted as fans around broke into more chants. “We will be here, in the same seats on Friday, to support them against Japan.”

With Egypt suggesting they have a team good enough to emulate their immediate predecessors, who came third at Argentina 2001, organisers will have the pleasant dilemma of finding enough room for the thousands more fans expected to follow Egypt and other teams in a tournament that had already grabbed the attention of a multi-cultural nation.