This article features in a four-part series that looks at the some of the teams to watch out for in the World Cup in 2018. The first edition takes a look at the team from Africa that has risen above from the turmoil it found itself in a few years back, Egypt.
Mohamed Salah is a celebrated figure in Egypt. A 25-year-old that has made a name for himself in Switzerland, Italy and now in his second try in England, Salah is the name on the back of most football shirts in the North African country. A nation that loves its football and plays host to one of the fiercest rivalries in the game, Egypt has a long history with the beautiful game, and next year, for the first time in 28 years, they will take part in the biggest tournament in football for only the third time – the World Cup, with a large amount of credit going to Salah.
But this Egyptian side isn’t carried by the Liverpool star, for their talent pool is vast. The record seven-time African Cup of Nations champions have a large list of players to choose from, many of whom are still young. In addition to that, they’ve got a well-travelled coach who has experienced and provided Europe with some of the best footballing tales in the modern era – Héctor Cúper. Their qualification for the World Cup comes as no surprise as their team has been making strides in the sport in recent years, following a tumultuous few years due to their political tension. But the World Cup comes as a source of pride for their country, and if they continue their fine progress, they can do well on the grandest stage next summer.
The Pharaohs have had a turbulent few years following the infamous Arab Spring which commenced in 2011 and affected millions in the Middle East and North African region. And the political tension was followed by the Port Said massacre which was a clash between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry supporters as the latter violently attacked fans of the rivals with knives, bottles and fireworks. The scandal saw the domestic league shut down for two years and matches have been played behind closed doors. This has enormously affected the country’s football system as well as the national team itself, hindering the significant progress they had made.
The team failed to qualify for three successive editions of the African Cup of Nations in 2012, 2013 and 2015 after winning the three prior to that in 2006, 2008 and 2010, but now, years after the political instability and a rejuvenated national team, their long-term future looks bright. Egypt’s aim was to qualify for the 2017 edition of the African Cup of Nations and after doing just that, they were astute and surprisingly went all the way to the final, losing to Cameroon, who overturned a one-goal deficit to win 2-1 in heart-breaking circumstances right at the end.
Egypt’s World Cup qualifying process displayed their solid defensive work as well. After overcoming Chad 4-1 on aggregate in the play-off round, they were put in a group alongside Uganda, Congo and Ghana, who were strong favourites to qualify. Once again displaying their strong work at the back and explosiveness up top, they qualified with four wins, one loss and one draw from their six games, winning 13 points. They also scored just eight goals, the fewest amongst the five African World Cup participants and conceded four. Mohamed Salah was once again their star in qualification, scoring five times – the joint most in the African qualifications.
Led by the eccentric Héctor Cúper, Egypt have seen a revival in their prospects after he took charge in 2015. He has won 19 out of his 30 games in charge as he approaches his third year at the helm. Although the results have been pleasing, the performances have often put many off. Often coming into games with a defensive-minded approach, he asks his defence to hold the team together and resist attacks, and then going on to rely on his wide options including Mohamed Salah and Mahmoud Hassan (commonly known as Trézéguet) to attack the opposition and strike on the counter.
It’s a system that has proven to be successful, as evident by their run in the World Cup qualifiers as well as the African Cup of Nations, where they reached the final by conceding just one goal (in the semi-final against Burkina Faso), and scoring just four – a run that included three successive 1-0 wins. The final itself was distressing for Egypt, but for Cúper himself, it was a sight that was far too familiar.
In a managerial career that has stretched over 24 years, Cúper’s honours list includes three trophies at club level – a list that could have looked much more prestigious. He was in charge of some of the finest teams in European football, including an unfancied Mallorca side that surprised everyone on their way to the Copa del Rey final in 1998, the stylish Valencia of the late 1990s which reached two Champions League finals under his tutelage but lost both, an Inter Milan side that was dominant in Italy but blew away the Serie A title on the final day of the season. In total, he has lost five finals and lost the league on the final day on two occasions across seven countries. A traveller, he has now bought his experience to Egypt, and they are reaping the rewards.
His counter-attacking style has always been synonymous with him. Even when he was in charge of that famous Valencia team, he made full use of the abilities of the likes of Claudio López, Vicente Rodríguez and Kily González to attack opposition defenders with blistering speed and efficiency. The same model has been replicated nearly two years later, and Egypt’s wingers are ones to watch out for at the World Cup next year. Their depth in attack is strong, and is certain to be utilised as they aim to make an impact next summer.
As mentioned, Cúper is a manager that places strong emphasis on defence, and that is displayed by the way he sets his teams up. A manager famous for using the shrewd four-at-the-back system, he played a role in popularising the 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 over the course of his career, and has continued to do with Egypt. Playing direct football and making use of counter-attacks, he has also been known for his exhausting training sessions, which is a result of giving specific instructions to each player to avoid a conflict of tactics between them, and that has given him his reputation for being a strictly organised manager.
At the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, his style was to nullify strong attacking teams, and that meant that even his best attacking players were involved in the defensive game, either in dropping back, or the strong pressing. Cúper also relies on flexibility, and requires his forward’s movements to create confusion among opposition defences – as seen frequently in the final. Their pressing is also strong, and their shrewd movement up front cuts out passing options, forcing the opposition into errors. It’s a technique that has worked out brilliantly, and it doesn’t look likely to be dropped as it has been successfully tried and tested on multiple occasions.
In the losing attempt at the final of the Cup of Nations this year, Cúper showed his flexibility, as his team often switched from their conventional 4-2-3-1 and shifted to a 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 system that was strongly influenced by their strength in the wing-back roles, played by Ahmed Elmohamady on the right side and Ahmed Fathy down the left. He also didn’t field an out-and-out forward as the front four of Salah, Trézéguet, Abdallah El Said (attacking midfielder) and Amr Warda (forward) showed their flexibility and interchangeability throughout. Although Egypt ended up being the losing side, it was a display that Cúper could take great motivation from, as his strategy worked for long parts, and the game was eventually decided by a late moment of brilliance, not per se a tactical outclassing from Cameroon.
Mohamed Salah is the obvious standout performer and after an impressive start to the season for his new side Liverpool where praise has been abundant, big things are expected of him at the World Cup – a stage that craves his immeasurable talent. The 25-year-old is a hero in Egypt, and not since Mohamed Aboutrika has the country loved a player so much. He is the flag-bearer for modern day Egyptian football and a man most of the country looks to for inspiration on the grandest stage as no Egyptian before him has ever been able to replicate the success he has so early in his career. When he’s in form, his country is in form and that would be a wonderful sight at the World Cup.
Apart from Salah, Egypt have a whole host of players ready to shine, and one of them resides close to him in Stoke: Ramadan Sobhi. Another winger that could benefit from Cúper’s methods, Sobhi is an Al-Ahly academy graduate that rose to stardom early in his career. Still only 20, he has shown the confidence and ability required to make it as a top level Premier League footballer, and if you rewind to matches against the likes of Middlesbrough and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, you can see how good he is. Big things are expected of him, and the World Cup is the perfect stepping stone if he aims to make a name for himself internationally.
Also in the Premier League are Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed Hegazi who play for Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion respectively. Both are well established in the national team, and are crucial to Cúper’s style of play. The midfielder’s importance was noted in the AFCON final as his awareness allowed him to score in the match and his tenacity has been well on display for club and country. Hegazi joined West Brom on loan in the summer, and has gone on to become one of the best players for the Baggies in a season of great inconsistency. There seems to be no doubt that he has a future in European football, and he is an important member that forms the core of the national team.
They’ve got a strong pool of players domestically as well. Goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary has been around since 1996, and is expected to be the oldest player to feature at the World Cup finals this summer. The 44-year-old has 156 Egyptian caps to his name, and was immovable in their qualifying process, becoming an icon around the footballing world. Supporting him from the front would be Ali Gabr, a 28-year-old centre-half who is expected to partner Hegazi at the back. In addition to that, there are the likes of Mohamed El-Shafy (32), Saleh Gomaa (24) and Tarek Hamad (29) who could all have a significant bearing on the team.
Overall, the national team has been going through a huge change and there has been a plethora of younger players coming through the ranks. Their most recent team selection for their final World Cup qualifier had an average age of 26.56, while their AFCON team had an average age of 26.86, a figure that’s only slightly risen due to the inclusion of then-43-year-old history-make Essam El-Hadary. Coach Hector Cúper has been full of praise of the improving system when speaking to Sid Lowe for The Guardian: “When I arrived, I found a country, a federation, with a real need – and sometimes you need that, too. You know you will get the sacrifice you need. I found passion, a love for football. I found good players, young players. OK, so Essam El-Hadary is 44, but this is a young team. 23, 24. I have found players with a real desire to work and a love for their country. They have shown humility and solidarity.”
Egypt are placed in Group A of the World Cup alongside hosts Russia, Arab rivals Saudi Arabia, who qualified from the Asian confederation and two-time champions Uruguay, who finished second in CONMEBOL qualifying behind Brazil. Uruguay are clear favourites to qualify, but Egypt look like a side that can make it through from their group and if they do indeed qualify, a potential tie against Spain or Portugal awaits in the second round.
Their journey over the last few years has been fantastic. Under Hector Cúper, they have gone from being a country in need to a country that has excelled. Their talent pool is playing to the best of their abilities and their effort has been rewarded in recent months with a fine run to the African Cup of Nations final, and now a ticket to Russia to play on the grandest stage of them all. And with players brimming with potential and the football scene getting their act back together, the World Cup looks like it may just be the start.