In the space of just six years, Egypt scaled the heights of African football, a rise to prominence that began in 2006 when their now legendary coach Hassan Shehata steered the Pharaohs to victory in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. The north Africans have gone on to claim two further continental crowns, the last of which came in Angola in January 2010, when they overcame Ghana 1-0 in the final.
However, things have changed considerably for Egypt since then. The country has undergone a social revolution that has seen the former political regime ousted from power, and has led to instability that has even had effects on the Egyptian team. But in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Shehata’s optimism shines through.
Confident in his team's ability to keep achieving results on the pitch during these difficult times, he believes national pride will see them through. “We’ve always worn the colours of our nation with honour and shown great strength in our performances, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” Shehata said.
The man responsible for guiding his countrymen to three consecutive continental crowns does not take personally the criticism that has come his way. “I’m used to being criticised and blamed. I’ve been through it all before. All it does is increase my determination, because I really am very confident in my players. They’ve always come good when called upon,” explains the national coach.
Egypt’s footballers find themselves, much like the nation they represent, at a crossroads. Mohamed Aboutrika and his team-mates have no option other than victory in their upcoming African Cup of Nations qualifying match at Ellis Park in South Africa. Currently lying bottom of Group G, the Egyptians have so far drawn at home to Sierra Leone and suffered an historic away loss to Niger. Defeating a table-topping Bafana Bafana side will not be an easy task, and while Shehata is wary of the opposition, he believes his team is capable of emerging from the encounter with three points.
“They’re serious, experienced opponents, and they got a big boost from their solid performances at the last World Cup. It should be a great match between two top teams. We know what’s expected of us, and we’re going to try our hardest to deliver the win our supporters are hoping for,” he said.
After having occupied a place in the top ten for many months, Egypt’s recent run of unfavourable results saw them slip down to 33rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in February. While this was the biggest fall registered by any nation during that period, it is worth noting that no international match has been held in Egypt since 22 January due to the unrest in the country.
Furthermore, contrary to most African sides, 90 per cent of Egypt’s international players ply their trade in the domestic league rather than in Europe. All of these factors raise the following question: could Egypt become the first reigning champion not to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations?
Shehata’s assistant coach, Shawki Gharib, winner of the competition as a player in 1986, does not believe so and prefers to view current events from a positive angle.
“Many people think that our lack of matches during this time will have negative consequences. I’m not so sure," said Gharid. "There’s no doubt it will have had an effect on the players physical condition, but there are solutions to that type of problem, such as planning more intensive training sessions. On the other hand, our boys actually needed a bit of a break after six years of continuous competition. We should see this situation as an opportunity.
All in for the win
For this crucial match, the Pharaohs will call on star performers from the Egyptian League’s main clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek, who are both set to play important CAF Champions League qualifying matches this weekend. European-based internationals such as Essam El Hadary, Mohamed Zidane, Ahmed Al Muhamadi and Ahmed Ali will complete the squad.
Shehata is convinced that the much-anticipated match at Ellis Park will go a long way to deciding Egypt’s fate in the qualifying phase. In the stadium where his team pulled off a stunning, historic victory over then world champions Italy at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009, he aims to put a smile back on the faces of his country’s football fans.
A defeat, unthinkable as it is, could well spell the end for the international careers of this great generation of players, which includes some of the best to have pulled on the famous red and white of Egypt.