Egypt’s national team, a dominant force in Africa until four years ago, is trying to reverse a downward slide, and new coach Shawky Gharib is adamant he can turn around their fortunes and restore the type of efficient, fast-paced football that propelled them to previous continental glory.
The ailing Pharaohs have suffered the adverse effects of a variety of problems that have plagued domestic football in recent years, leading to stunning reverses that would have been unthinkable previously. The record seven-time winners of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations did not even qualify for two successive editions of the AFCON in 2012 and 2013 before failing to end a 24-year FIFA World Cup™ absence at the last hurdle after an embarrassing 7-3 aggregate defeat by Ghana in a Brazil 2014 play-off.
Former coach Bob Bradley departed after receiving mixed reviews from Egypt’s football-mad supporters, with most accepting that there was little he could do in the face of political upheaval and the cessation of league football. While some domestic woes might have eased under Bradley’s successor, with the completion of the Egyptian Premier League for the first time in three years, the 55-year-old Gharib is trying to shepherd the side through some other major changes. Namely, the key duo of Mohamed Aboutrika and Wael Gomaa have retired, while others, including strikers Amr Zaki and Mohamed Zidan, are either struggling for regular football with modest teams or still looking for a club to join.
“We are not simply trying to inject new blood, we are starting a whole rebuilding process. We endured a tough period in which there were no domestic competitions and only around 20 matches were played a season,” Gharib, who was an assistant to head coach Hassan Shehata during Egypt’s hat-trick of consecutive Nations Cup triumphs in the late 2000s, said in an interview with FIFA.com.
“We now have a limited number of players with sufficient international experience and there are some who have only played friendly matches. We had no option but to start this new phase following our recent stumbles, but we already settled on some exciting young players and our recent friendly matches gave us a good insight about the current set-up.”
Selecting the right man for the job
An experienced player in his long playing career, Gharib does draw on positives as Egypt begin their 2015 Nations Cup qualifying campaign this week against Senegal with the aim of restoring their battered pride. He brims with confidence when he speaks about his past management work with the Egyptian national teams, which includes a remarkable achievement in 2001 when he steered the side to a third-place finish at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina. "I’m the only Egyptian coach to have worked with all the national teams - the youth, U-21 and Olympic teams. I’m also the only coach who put Egypt on the winners’ podium. I’m taking full advantage of my experience,” he added.
The quality of Egyptian football has been called into question lately, with a number of dull games producing little flair and giving little indication that the domestic competition will yield established players who can drag Egypt out of its current crisis. But Gharib can still take heart from an exodus of Egyptian players into Europe, with Portuguese clubs having the lion’s share, including leading side Sporting whose squad includes two Egyptians in winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razeq, known affectionately as Shikabala, and versatile defender Rami Rabia.
“The transfer of those players to Europe is very useful to us. They will play there around 40 or 45 matches in stable competitions, compared to a mere 28 matches here. They also feature in highly competitive European competitions,” Gharib said. “It’s the first time in Egyptian football history that the national team’s squad includes 12 foreign-based players for competitive international games.”
A tough task to start
Egypt were drawn in a tough Nations Cup qualifying group that includes two heavyweights in North African rivals Tunisia and Senegal plus improving Botswana. On paper, Egypt are expected to battle it out with Tunisia and Senegal for the top two Group G spots that earn qualification for next year’s Morocco finals, but Gharib is taking nothing for granted, insisting that no team can be considered firm favourites to advance.
“The chances are equal among the four teams. We should not forget that Egypt’s elimination during the previous two qualifying campaigns came at the hands of Niger in 2011 and Central African Republic the following year,” he stated. “I can’t say that there is a top-ranked team in the group, which is a very tough one. Our competitors also had a rebuilding phase but they started earlier than us. We are a bit late.”
Egypt open their campaign away to Senegal on 5 September, before hosting Tunisia five days later in a pair of mouth-watering matches that could go some way to determining their fate. A third successive failure to reach the AFCON finals would mark a historic slide in fortunes for the Pharaohs, and that is something Gharib and his team are trying to avoid at all costs.