Abdelghani talks Egypt's 1990 heroics & 2018 ambitions
Abdelghani netted Egypt's only goal at Italy 1990
That famous goal has featured strongly in Egyptian popular culture
He speaks of his faith in the current players, Mohamed Salah in particular
Although Egypt had the honour of representing the Arab world at the second edition of the FIFA World Cup™ in 1934, the opportunity to return eluded them for decades. Their long wait finally ended in 1990, when a golden generation led by the late coach Mahmoud el Gohary took the Pharaohs back to the game’s flagship event.
Despite being drawn in arguably the tournament's toughest group, the Egyptians proved a tactical match for their opponents and pushed hard for a place in the knockout phase. And while they would eventually come up short, bowing out with two points and a solitary goal, they could not have known how often that goal would be replayed in the years to come. Indeed, the legendary status afforded to Magdy Abdelghani’s strike grew with each subsequent World Cup that Egypt missed out on. This was a drought that would last 28 years – despite the country having a gifted generation that won three consecutive African titles in the same period – and only ended with the team’s qualification for Russia 2018.
To discuss the team’s past and the present, Abdelghani, who left an indelible mark on Egyptian football during the country's second world finals appearance, spoke exclusively to FIFA.com, recalling his unforgettable experience at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ and giving his take on the Pharaohs' chances at Russia 2018.
FIFA.com: Can we start by going back in time and asking you about Egypt's honourable participation at Italy 1990? Magdy Abdelghani: We indeed went to Italy determined to perform honourably, even if the draw had put us in an extremely tough group. The Netherlands had won the European Championship two years earlier, England had excellent players with enormous experience, and Ireland played with possibly unsurpassed physical power. Our first encounter was against the Netherlands, but at that time it was difficult to follow their biggest names on television. So, when we saw those towering players face to face – that elite group of world stars, such as Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Koeman – the feeling was: how can we hold out, and what will the score be today?
Yet the result was a draw. How did the team achieve such a stunning outcome? In football, showing courage on the pitch makes you perform well. The doubts we had before the game were normal. The technical disparity was huge, but we were not there just to make up the numbers, especially after the really tough training camps we had in our preparation. We also had a fierce will and determination. The players agreed that it would be a battle between 11 players on each side, and that we’d expend every last ounce of energy in the fight. As the game progressed, we grew more confident, unlike the Dutch, who seemed tense after failing to create many opportunities or score. That was until they scored their first goal after a small mistake.
Egypt then got a penalty and you were lucky enough to score the equaliser. Tell us about that. We weren’t disheartened by their goal. We went on the attack and created several opportunities before being awarded the penalty. At that moment, some team-mates approached to encourage me and wish me good luck. Coach Mahmoud el Gohary had designated me as the first option for a spot-kick, but as I hadn’t expected us to be awarded one, it took me by surprise. I placed the ball on the spot and decided on the same side that I’d gone for on many previous occasions. I eyed the keeper and then fired it to his right. We scored and equalised, and there was jubilation the length and breadth of our country. It was a priceless goal that earned us a point in a big game against the European champions and further boosted our confidence.
And how did that goal become a famous story in Egypt? A journalist from our delegation told me after the match that I’d become the first Egyptian player to score in a World Cup and at the Olympics. Years earlier, at the Los Angeles Olympics, I’d scored in a match against Costa Rica, which we won. It was really wonderful to make history with such a double accomplishment. After the game with the Netherlands, we played a tactical match against Ireland that ended in a goalless draw. Then in the crucial last group fixture, we lost 1-0 to England and missed out on the chance to reach the second round, but we left the tournament with heads held high. For years after that, Egypt had no luck qualifying for another World Cup. However, in recent years, my goal from Italy 1990 started being shown again. It started with me shooting a video advertisement to encourage the national team to qualify for the finals once again. The goal was then talked about by Egyptians before every game the team played. I approached the story with a degree of humour, reminding everyone that I was still the one who had scored Egypt's last goal at a World Cup.
Do you expect that sequence to end in Russia this summer and, if so, who will have the honour of scoring? I hope Egypt can achieve good results in Russia and that the players will manage to score. I expect Mohamed Salah to have the distinction of netting our first goal, especially as he’s performing brilliantly with Liverpool and scores almost every time he plays.
Looking at Egypt's group, how would you rate their chances of progressing? In a World Cup, there are no easy teams. But I believe we’ve managed to avoid drawing the very best teams. I think the draw served us somewhat well, and even the game order is in our favour. The fact that our first fixture is against Uruguay will encourage our guys to raise their game against a title-contending team with great players like Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. This will be the key to the rest of our journey. We’ll take on Russia in our second match and, by that time, we’ll have drawn up a plan based on the result and performance of the hosts in the tournament opening game. I believe our performance over the past two years, when we closed teams down and denied them space, will prove effective in Russia. We’re also good at launching fast counter-attacks. The third game against Saudi Arabia will be open, which I hope will help us qualify for the second round.
You played professionally in Europe some years ago, and now there are many professional Egyptian players abroad. What’s your advice to these players? I’m proud that I was the only Egyptian playing professionally in Europe (at Portugal's Beira-Mar) when we participated at Italy 1990. Now we have a large group of professionals in Europe and throughout the Arab world. Egyptian players have proved their competence in the game’s leading championships. The best example is Mohamed Salah, who has now become the talk of the world thanks to his skills and scoring abilities. I believe that a good competitive environment in itself will improve the players' physical and technical abilities. My message to them is to stay at the top of their game in the coming months and keep performing to the standard expected of them. Tactics and implementing the coach's plans are important, but they also need to bring to the table the fighting spirit that has always characterised us.
I remember how we were prepared for the 1990 World Cup. Our coach Mahmoud el Gohary wanted us to be fully committed, so we were like soldiers. In Italy, he decided we should stay in a more basic hotel than those of our opponents to keep the players focused and relaxed. That proved very useful. I have no doubt that the current players will show the same commitment in Russia and do their very best to compete.