Egypt go into FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 ™ qualifying as reigning African champions, having successfully defended their CAF Africa Cup of Nations crown in Ghana at the start of the year. It was a massive fillip for their chances of returning to the world finals for what would be only the third time.
The win over Cameroon in the final in Accra in February established for Egypt a record sixth success in the African championships and handed coach Hassan Shehata the rare distinction of back-to-back titles and captain Ahmed Hassan an unprecedented third winners' medal.
Egypt are unquestionably one of the major forces in African football. Winners of the 2006 CAF Africa Cup of Nations on home soil following a tense final against Didier Drogba's Côte d'Ivoire, the Pharaohs repeated the trick against Cameroon in Ghaha two years later.
In winning the continental crown for a record sixth time, the Egyptians showcased their group talents throughout a tournament that was theirs for the taking. It was a triumph in which Hassan Shehata, the legendary 'Master of the Nile', had an equally important role to play. A fiery character and a born leader of men, the former prodigy turned coach took over from Marco Tardelli in late 2004 and made the post his own after an initial two-month spell as caretaker, no mean achievement for an Egypt manager.
Ghana 2008 provided Shehata with another opportunity to show his masterful appreciation of the continental game. Not once during their triumphant march through Ghana did the Egyptians look ruffled. Mohamed Aboutrika and Co impressed in the group phase, disposing of Cameroon 4-2 and Sudan 3-0 before drawing 1-1 with Zambia with qualification already in the bag. An efficient 2-1 defeat of Angola followed in the quarter-finals, a result that paved the way to a crushing 4-1 win over the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire in the semis. And while the 1-0 scoreline in the final against Cameroon looked narrow, the fact is the Egyptians never seemed in any danger of letting the trophy slip from their grasp. To cap it all for the African champions, the tournament also saw the emergence of unheralded players such as goalkeeper Essam Al Hadari and midfielder Hosni Abd Rabou.
Shehata has an advantage over many of his co-African coaches in that he can rely heavily on players from Al Ahly, Egypt's biggest club and champions of Africa in 2005 and 2006, and neighbours Zamalek. Al Ahly currently supply a large number of players to the national team, which makes building a collective understanding simpler. Only six members of the squad play their football abroad: captain and playmaker Ahmed Hassan, defensive duo Wael Gomaa and Ibrahim Said, midfield men Mohamed Shawky and Hassan Mostafa, and goalgetter Mohamed Zidan.
Egypt's talisman is Hassan (Anderlecht), the heir to the legendary Hossam Hassan, and a player blessed with an array of match-winning talents. Mohamed Zidan (Hamburg) and Amr Zaki (Zamalek) are a pair of speedy, skilful strikers who have given their side the attacking clout to match the likes of Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon. At the back, meanwhile, Wael Gomaa is the orchestrator of a solid and well-drilled unit.
Egypt occupies a special place in the history of African football. In 1934, it became the first country from the continent to take part in the FIFA World Cup, after the north Africans took advantage of Turkey's absence, and qualified thanks to a crushing 11-2 aggregate victory over Palestine. However, their stay in Italy, which staged the 1934 finals, was a brief one: a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Hungary meant that they were on their way back home after their first match.
At that point Egypt were Africa's sole representatives in the event, although they were soon joined by Sudan. As a result, they had to take on European and Asian teams to qualify for the finals. In 1938 the Egyptians withdrew from their qualifier against Romania and did not get another shot at reaching the finals until 1954, when they were soundly beaten 2-1 and 5-1 by Italy. Four years later, they forfeited once more after refusing to face Israel in the qualifying play-offs. In fact, it was not until Italy 1990, some 56 years after their first appearance, that Egypt made their return to the FIFA World Cup finals. Drawn in one of the toughest groups, the Pharaohs acquitted themselves well, holding both the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland to draws before suffering a narrow 1-0 defeat to England.