The current crop of Egypt’s U-20 side hardly boast the eye-catching skills of their predecessors, but they are relying on their almost flawless efficiency to go as far as they can during the approaching FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Egyptian hopes at the youth tournament have typically been pinned to particularly promising footballers during the past decade, some of whom made their names with domestic clubs while others were reputed for experiencing European football at such an early age. But Rabie Yassine’s men are not lauded for their trickery nor a killer instinct, but rather for a highly-effective approach that saw them superbly brush aside their opponents at the African Championship earlier this year to give Egypt their first continental triumph since 2003.
The lack of a stand-out player does not worry rookie coach Yassin, a former Egyptian international left-back, who defied the odds in Algeria to wow a local media sceptical of the abilities of the little-known players. “Our efficiency at the tournament was down to the work I had done with the team during the past five years. You can see how we play as a one unit, without the reliance on particular stars,” Yassine told FIFA.com in an interview. “We are a compact side. You can see for instance how all the 11 players drift back to defend when we lose possession.”
Five out of the seven goals Egypt scored at the African Championship came through dead-ball situations or headers from crosses thanks to Yassin’s pragmatic approach that also saw the young Pharaohs concede just two goals. Saleh Gomaa, a product of ENPPI’s youth academy who underwent a trial at Germany’s Borussia Dortmund recently, pulled the strings in midfield, Ahly’s Ramy Rabia marshalled a steadfast defence and attacking midfielder Mahmoud Kahraba added the cutting edge after notching three goals. Yet for all their efforts the individuals were outshone by a dedicated teamwork that should be on full display in a tough Group E that also includes Chile, England and Iraq.
“This is one of the strongest groups in the tournament, if not the toughest. Our three competitors are physically and technically gifted,” Yassin commented. “Iraq are very strong. They didn’t lose any matches at last year’s AFC Championship, finishing as runners up following a defeat in penalty shootout in the final. Their squad includes eight players who already represent the senior Iraqi side. As for Chile, they are powerful in attack and pose threat to any opponents. For England, being one of the European representatives at the World Cup speaks volumes about their capabilities.”
Egypt are best remembered for finishing third at the 2001 U-20 World Cup in Argentina, where they remarkably recovered from a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the hosts in the group stage to clinch the bronze medal following a 1-0 victory over Paraguay. Since then, they have only missed out on the 2007 edition, reaching the round of 16 three times in 2003, 2009 (when they hosted the tournament) and 2011.
One match at a time
Asked about whether he is setting himself a specific target, Yassin said: “We have to be realistic and we should not put too much pressure on the players. We will take it one game at a time and see how it goes. We can think about competing for the title when we have all factors of success in place, but we have to bear in mind that there are many problems in the youth sectors of Egyptian clubs. I hoped I would have eight, nine or ten foreign-based players in my squad for the World Cup.
“But we will do our best anyway to go as far as we can in the tournament. And regardless of the outcome, I can rate my reign as successful, given that most of my players are already playing regularly with their clubs.”
Egypt go to Turkey with one recognised striker in Ahmed Hassan, who is commonly known as Koka. The Rio Ave frontman failed to impress at the African Championship, leaving Yassin to contemplate using a strategy that does not overly rely on a target man.
“We will mainly rely on those who come from behind to threaten our opponents. I hoped I would have another proven goal-scorer to play alongside Koka, but we have already managed to overcome some powerful teams at the African Championship with only one striker,” he said.