When the CAF Futsal Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in South Africa on 15 April, Egypt will be one of the overwhelming favourites not only to grab one of the three places on offer for the FIFA Futsal World Cup Colombia 2016 later this year, but the Pharaohs are also expected to challenge for the title.
Since the first two African participants at the global event (Nigeria and Zimbabwe) were invited, Africa has held a qualifying competition, and every time Egypt has been one of the countries that made it through to the World Cup finals. In 1996, 2000 and 2004 they were the continent's sole representatives, while in 2008 they were joined by Libya and four years ago Morocco were the third North African team to qualify for Thailand.
Egypt's dominance of the continental qualifiers has been similarly outstanding, having won the first three Africa Futsal Cup of Nations. In 2008 the Pharaohs found themselves challenged for top spot by regional rivals Libya, who managed to win the competition at home. Proving that their success was not part of a one-hit-wonder the Libyans repeated that success later that year in the Arab Futsal Championship in Egypt, giving them back-to-back titles in the regional competition.
Disappointingly for the North African powerhouses, the draw for the competition in South Africa has thrown Africa's three representatives from Thailand 2012 together in Group B, where they are joined by Angola. This means that at least one rookie from Group A (South Africa, Tunisia, Zambia or Mozambique) will qualify for Colombia.
A serious rival
Egyptian coach Hesham Saleh is aware that his side can no longer count on the 'automatic' qualification they did up until the latter end of the last decade. “We used to beat Libya by large margins but now the gap between us and them is not big anymore.”
Egypt take on Libya in their opening fixture and for Saleh that will be the most important game in the first round of the competition. "If we beat Libya, we will have an 80% chance of reaching the semi-final."
But it is not only the Libyans that Saleh is worried about, though he is confident that his side can prevail in South Africa. "Our opponents in the group might be physically better, but we boast better skills.”
Saleh is honest that he would have preferred better preparations for the tournament. "I hoped we would be able to hold a training camp abroad before we fly to South Africa, but it didn't work out. Libya prepared for the tournament better than us, holding training camps in Tunisia.”
Looking for experience
Although Saleh can call on some of the players who have already gained the experience of playing both on a continental and global level, he has included several young players in his 15-man-squad. “We have several excellent young players but they just need to gain more experience. I hope the Africa Cup of Nations will give us the sufficient experience as we look forward to reaching the World Cup."
Much is expected from midfielder Mostafa Nader and veteran forward Mizo. Nader represented his country at the last World Cup in Thailand, where the team advanced to the round of 16, but found their progress halted by Italy. Mizo also played in Thailand, as well as the 2008 finals in Brazil, where the team was knocked out in the group phase.
Ahead of their trip to South Africa the Egyptians played warm-up matches against local clubs, winning both. The nucleus of Saleh's squad play their club football for Egyptian club Maqassa, who in 2013 won an unofficial mini world futsal club tournament in Kuwait. An indication of how important futsal is in the North African country, is the fact that they are in contention to stage the 2020 World Cup, alongside 12 other countries that have expressed an interest to host the showpiece event of world futsal.