Everybody knows the end scene. More than 95m people trembling in front of their screens, a fully packed stadium and the most popular footballer in the country about to take a last minute penalty to determine whether Egypt will make it to their first World Cup in 28 years or if it will be Déjà vu all over again. The question is: what made this moment so emotional?
After a defeat against England and two draws with Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, Egypt walked out of the 1990 World Cup tailing their group as they only bagged one goal from the spot and in their second attempt at the grandest stage failed to secure a single victory.
Hossam Hassan, the country’s historical top scorer, and FC Kaiserslautern’s centre-back Hany Ramzy were the two relentless, inexhaustible players from the 1990 squad that kept fighting for another World Cup shot all the way to the 2002 qualification attempt. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe knocked the Pharaohs out of the preliminary qualification round in 1994 following a strange stone-throwing incident that forced a rematch between the two sides in France. It was Tunisia, who went unbeaten in 1998 qualifying, who denied Egypt that time and goals from Morocco’s Mustapha Hadji and Algeria’s Yacine Bezzaz put the final nails in the veterans’ coffins depriving them from participation in 2002.
Marco Tardelli took the helm ahead of the 2006 qualification competition, but a draw against Benin and two losses at the hands Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast and a poor Libya side saw the Italian running out of the emergency exit, which brought in Hassan Shehata, the pioneering Coach that led the country to three triumphal Africa Cup of Nations.
With Shehata there was always more than meets the eye, as he took Africa by storm with his tactically fluid 3-5-2 formation and his main man Mohamed Aboutrika outclassing and outplaying every opposition to bring home the gold on three consecutive occasions. Shehata is the only Coach in African history to achieve such a milestone. However, another Drogba brace sent the Egyptians crashing out of the 2006 qualification and Algeria continued to act as the salt in Egypt’s wound, winning the tiebreak that sent the Dessert Warriors to the 2010 World Cup.
The whole nation went through drastic changes afterwards with the political revolution, while domestic football was brought down and failed to recover since. A tragedy in the city of Port Said in a match between El Masry and Al Al Ahly ended with 72 killed and 500 injured. Sadly, a few years later in Cairo 20 fans were killed after a game between Zamalek and ENPPI. Ever since, domestic football was either cancelled or played behind closed doors. Shehata resigned from his duties and Egypt failed to qualify to three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations.
One surprising candidate stepped up to take Egypt through this Dark Age, current LA Galaxy boss Bob Bradley. The New Jersey-native led a hopeless Egyptian side to become the only African side to win all six qualification group stage fixtures, yet again the side’s dreams went shattered after suffering a humiliating loss to Ghana in the final tie leading to the 2014 World Cup. Following the defeat, legend Aboutrika, who missed his last chance to showcase his talent to the world, told a young, hurt Mohamed Salah: “You will take this country to the World Cup.”
A new adventure was about to unfold as Egypt had ahead two qualifying campaigns, one for the Africa Cup of Nations and one for World Cup 2018. Hector Cuper was the man in command this time. The Argentine, known for his misfortune of having to stand six feet away from almost every trophy in football but never lifting one, seemed likely to understand the melancholy disposition of Egyptian football, having tasted bitter disappointment himself.
Cuper, an honest representative of pure calcio, brilliantly implemented his stiff defensive mentality to the Egyptian side. He controlled the tempo of each battle, slowing down the game as he raised the mental awareness and defensive intelligence of his players to turn the beautiful game to an ugly physical war, with the individual excellence of his forwards taking a huge part of his philosophy. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.
Egypt started their journey with Cuper knocking out a well-oiled Nigeria side to enter the Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament where they stepped up their game all the way to reach the Final, with their displays earning defender Ahmed Hegazi and his partner Ali Gabr contracts with Premier League side West Bromwich Albion and turned teenage winger Ramadan Sobhi from a Stoke City bench-warmer to a first team regular. However, Cuper did his thing, falling from grace another time to walk out of the competition with the runners-up medal.
“I don’t believe in witchcraft or curses or strange things like that,” Cuper said after the defeat to Cameroon. “If you’ve only got bad luck, you don’t get there at all. I don’t think like that. People say you’re better not going at all if that’s going to happen. No, it’s better to be there. Always.
At the same time Egypt had their path to Russia coming up, as the draw put them in a group with Congo, Uganda and the team that knocked them out of the last qualifiers, Ghana. Egypt went with a resolute defensive system and two dangerous individuals finishing at the other end, quality ball distribution and accurate finishing from Abdallah Said. Most important, though, was the man with a determination to conquer the footballing world, Liverpool star Salah.
Ghana shockingly failed to grab any victory in their first three ties, making it a two-horse race between Egypt and Uganda, a race that was to be determined by a game between Egypt and Congo after the Pharaohs and the Cranes both won their head-to-head games 1-0.
In that deciding fixture, Salah delivered the lead but Congo’s Bouka Moutou equalized with less than 15 minutes left on the clock as Egypt conceded their first home goal in the qualifiers, taking us to the end scene, the climax of the journey, an enthralling and beautiful moment from the penalty spot.
Salah was already a fan favourite before that penalty. Egypt scored seven goals in qualification and it was Salah’s intelligent movement that allowed him to score five on his own and assist the other two. He was popular before he converted against Congo but after he became a symbol, a fourth pyramid, who sent his country to the World Cup — just as Aboutrika predicted.