There is no questioning Egypt's status as one of the giants of African football. They have the best record at the CAF African Cup of Nations, having won the event no fewer than six times, starting with the inaugural edition in Sudan in 1957 and more recently with the latest competition, held in Ghana earlier this year.
Not only that, but they have twice reached the semi-finals of the Olympic Football Tournament, at Amsterdam 1928 and Tokyo 1964. However, for all this rich history at international level, and despite being the first African country ever to appear in the FIFA World Cup™ finals in 1934 in Italy, the Pharaohs have only managed one other appearance, when Italy hosted the competition for a second time in 1990. Nevertheless, their successful defence of their continental title has made them strong favourites to qualify for South Africa 2010.
Much of their recent success is credited to their coach, Hassan Shehata. FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Shehata about expectations, pressure, pride, the qualifiers, his relationship with the players and the press, and what he hopes to achieve.
FIFA.com: You took charge of Egypt when they were stumbling in the 2006 FIFA World cup qualifiers, and you have won every possible title for your country since then. Is Hassan Shehata a guarantee of lasting success?
Hassan Shehata: Of course not, there are more ingredients than just Hassan Shehata in this success. First, God's blessings; secondly, the choice of the players, which is a very important task and a key to the success of any football coach, because picking the right names will make your job much easier. I also have to mention that we received great support from the federation. But most of all I credit this success to my democratic strategy at work. Many coaches make their own decisions, but I completely believe in making decisions based on the advice of my team. I have two assistants who helped Egypt win the Nations Cup in 1986 as players, and I highly appreciate their experience. I even give my players the space and freedom to share certain decisions with me, which tightens our relationship.
Does that mean you had an easy task?
On the contrary, we faced many challenges. First, we didn't get enough support from the local media, very few people believed in us even after we won the first Nations Cup title in 2006, and we did not have many players based in Europe like other African teams. So we focused on our local players, and we were able to build them into a real unit ahead of the Ghana tournament.
But Egypt have been disappointing since winning the Nations Cup in February.
This is true, we have lost to Malawi, and two weeks ago we were thrashed 4-0 by Sudan. I know it was a shocking result, but I also have to say that it was not an ordinary day. We conceded three goals in the last eight minutes. We need more time to train before games, we didn't have enough time before those games. This is something we have decided to overcome in future by going into camp at least five to six days before any official match.
Are you worried about facing Congo DR in Kinshasa this weekend?
Yes, I have to admit. . But I am confident that the players will recover. We cannot accept another defeat in these qualifiers, and I have no doubt that we will reach the final round.
Is there a certain team that you wouldn't want to face in the final round?
Not really, we are the reigning champions of Africa, and everyone is supposed to fear us, not the opposite! We are lucky that we will be seeded top of our group, which will spare us from facing tough opponents like Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Nigeria. However, I'm always wary of our North African opponents, because the rivalry between us is incredible. Being the better team does not always mean you win such games!
You are known for leaving out a 'star' from your squads, as you did with Mohamed Zidan this time and previously with Mido. Why is that?
It is a message that I continue to send out to my players. Discipline is the most important thing in my relationship with them, and I won't select an undisciplined player in my squad even if he is technically better than the rest, because such players harm your team more than help it. But at the end of the day, I look upon my players as my children, and I always leave the door open for any of them to return.
What do you do apart from football?
I enjoy playing backgammon and spending quality time with my grandson.
And what is your next challenge?
We will definitely be looking to achieve a third successive Nations Cup title in Angola, but taking Egypt to the World Cup finals in South Africa is my only dream and my only wish for the moment!
After watching my team collapse in such a way against Sudan, even though it was a friendly, I became worried for the first time. My players were careless and disoriented, and I am also concerned by the fact that we will have to play while fasting in Kinshasa
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