Egypt coach Hassan Shehata should be basking in the glow of the spotlight on the eve of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations final, the result of an incredible run of success that is finally earning him richly deserved plaudits. Instead he studiously avoids the attention that should come with being a coach on the verge of winning his third successive continental championship ahead of Sunday’s African final against Ghana.
It is perhaps modesty that has kept him from making even a single pronouncement to the public since arriving in Angola, or alternatively, an indifference to the media show that goes with coaching the most successful footballing nation in Africa as they stand poised to win their seventh CAN trophy.
Whatever the reason may be, Shehata remains an enigmatic figure despite the fact he's close to a historic treble, with only the young upstarts from West Africa in his way at Luanda’s 11 November Stadium. Even more, he and his team are unbeaten in three successive tournaments. His own run of 17 matches undefeated is one fewer than Egypt’s record-breaking tally of 18 because their last group match in the 2004 tournament was before he took over for the 2006 edition.
Start of something good
If there was ever vindication sought for the growing belief in Africa that more home-grown coaches might be given a chance at the highest level, it is Shehata’s success that provides a compelling argument. As a former Egypt international, he reached three Nations Cup semi-finals (in 1974, 1978 and 1980) as a player, but he never had anything approaching the success he has achieved from the bench.
Shehata was initially a stop-gap replacement for the Italian Marco Tardelli, hired in October of 2004 during Egypt’s abortive run in the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers. But while the Pharaohs looked for another higher profile coach to take charge as they planned to host the 2006 Cup of Nations finals, Shehata’s successful tinkering with the team set them off on a run of seven wins in his first eight games, turning his tenure from temporary to permanent.
His easy handle on one of the most pressurised jobs in world football looked somewhat tenuous during that Nations Cup at home when confronted with an angry Ahmed ‘Mido’ Hossam, the talented striker he took off in the semi-final against Senegal. An angry touchline confrontation threatened to undermine his authority but the introduction of Amr Zaki produced a winning goal within minutes, and any suggestion that Shehata’s hold on the job was in question were dispatched when Mido was banished to the stands for the final and forced to publicly apologise.
His hand has strengthened considerably since then on the back of his success, although Egypt’s failure to qualify for the first African World Cup in South Africa this summer with a golden generation of players will surely go down as a major disappointment. But the events of just over 70 days ago in Khartoum - when they lost their 2010 World Cup play-off 1-0 to Algeria - will be banished from memory if Egypt achieve the unlikely hat-trick of successive titles on the final day of the tournament in Angola.
Planning with precision
Behind his steely façade, Shehata possesses a jocular personality, according to star striker Mohamed Zidan. There is also a confidence and strength of will that allows him to steer an Egyptian ship despite all of the distractions that surround a team whose every move is closely watched by a fanatical population of almost 80 million. As injured striker Amr Zaki put it last year: “Shehata gives us a winning mentality. So now, even if we are playing a tough competitor on the road, we are confident enough to go right after them.”
In Angola, Shehata has inspired his charges to such self-belief right from the start, as they blitzed Nigeria 3-1 in their opening match. Straightforward wins over Mozambique, Benin, Cameroon and finally Algeria, by a stunning 4-0 score, followed and are enough to prove the in-form Pharoahs favourites against an short-handed Ghana team in the final.
Though Shehata has been unable to call upon the injured trio of Zaki, Mohamed Aboutrika or Mohamed Shawky in this tournament, he has still had the talent of Zidan, Hosni Abd-Rabou, Ahmed Hassan, Essam Al Hadari and Emad Moteab at his disposal. But his tactics have also proven masterful, notably the timing of his substitutions. Mohamed "Gedo" Nagui has come consistently off the bench to score, his four goals making him the tournament’s top scorer.
“We’ve won all of our games because of the strategies that we set up ahead of time,” explained Egypt Assistant Coach Shawky Gharib, who attends press conferences for Shehata, after the victory over the Desert Foxes. “We also planned well how to handle each adversary at the start of the competition.”
Just six months ago Egypt beat world champions Italy at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa in what was regarded as a major upset. Now if Shehata and his side fail to write a new chapter in African football history, that will be considered a shock result. But Gharib knows they will not be taking the Black Stars lightly, saying: “Ghana are one of the strongest teams here, and we are totally focused on facing them in the final.”