When Egypt's star-studded side failed to overcome Zambia in Cairo Stadium in 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying, it wasn't merely two points they lost. The shaky draw in their first test of the final round was a sudden jolt to the nerves of fervent supporters, who have seen their side falter at the final hurdle of qualifying all too often.
Before then hopes had been sky-high that the six-time African champions would make it through to next year's South African finals for the first time since 1990. After all, the Pharaohs are enjoying four successful years under coach Hassan Shehata, during which they have won two successive CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles.
"My only concern when I went to the stadium was how many goals Egypt would score," one fan, 20-year-old engineering student Karim Khoshala, admitted dazedly after the match. With one game gone the Egyptians have now to deal with a serious setback, tangled on one point with the three other competitors in Group C: Zambia, Algeria and Rwanda (who drew 0-0 in Kigali). But while many are sweating the sluggish start, Shehata does not share their anxiety.
"There is no disaster, and it's not the end of the world," the 59-year-old coach said. "We should not be that worried because there is still a long way to go. Some people are acting as though we were defeated, although the chances are still equal for the four teams. The other two teams have also drawn so everything remains as it was."
Captain calms nerves
Egypt skipper Ahmed Hassan echoed his coach's sentiments, but he can also understand where the fans' disappointment is coming from as it seems to follow a pattern of past failures. "I don't really think that the fans have exaggerated feelings of disappointment," the Al Ahly midfielder told FIFA.com. "People are worried because they have unpleasant memories from when we failed to reach the World Cup after stumbling against small teams.
"It was also hard for them to swallow a draw at home, but we can't say that this result dented our hopes because there are still five matches to go. We are capable of winning at home and on the road, it doesn't really matter where we play nowadays," Hassan added.
But no matter how confident the players remain, question marks linger. And many have begun to wonder if their impressive performances at the 2006 and 2008 Cup of Nations could be down to lengthy training camps prior to the tournaments. That's an advantage not affordable in FIFA World Cup qualifiers as the players link up with their national team only a week or so before each game due to the busy and hectic schedules of their clubs.
"It might be true that we need more time to prepare for such important encounters," said goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadari, whose heroics and athleticism gave the team a penalty shootout victory over Côte d'Ivoire in the 2006 continental final and helped them retain the trophy two years later in Ghana.
"But we are short of solutions for that problem. We won't be able to find a club coach who agrees to release his players 15 days before a World Cup qualifier and we have at least eight foreign-based players," the net minder added. "Anyway, we are fully focused on making up for the Zambia result by beating Algeria in our next game," the 36-year-old custodian, who plays for Swiss side Sion, added.
Since the disappointment of the Zambia fiasco, newspaper headlines have begun to emerge about a feud between the team's two England-based strikers, Amr Zaki and Mido. It is yet another source of worry for already concerned Egypt fans. The whole issue revolves around Zaki allegedly leaking news of Mido's angry response at not being included in the first team to members of the press.
Captain Hassan, however, has denied any friction. "Unfortunately, we sometimes make a big deal about minor things," the man in the know said by way of clarification. "I talked to Zaki and Mido both and there is no problem whatsoever between them. If we defeated Zambia and such things happened, no one would have talked about it. But stumbles bring troubles. People have the right to criticise technical choices for instance, but there is no need to blow other things out of proportion."
Egypt have the chance on 7 June to turn their fortunes around in what could be their toughest final round match, away to Algeria, in a heated North African derby.