Egypt’s World Cup qualification – proof that football is more than just a sport
October 8, 2017. 95th minute of the World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Congo at the Borg El Arab Stadium. With the score level at 1-1, Mohamed Salah stepped up to take the penalty against Congo’s keeper Barel Mouko.
Everyone in the 86,000-capacity stadium in Alexandria and indeed the whole of Egypt waited with baited breath (and prayers) as their talismanic player stood at the edge of the box and waited for the referee’s whistle.
The magnitude of the penalty, which would certainly have been among the last few moments of action in the game, was known to everyone. A win for Egypt would confirm their qualification for the next edition of the FIFA World Cup – an event the football-crazy nation had failed to reach since 1990.
At the referee’s signal, Salah proceeded to calmly slot the ball into the bottom-right corner with his left foot to send the entire country into a frenzy.
The Pharaohs (as the team is called) qualified for 2018 World Cup in Russia by topping Group E in African qualifiers ahead of Uganda, Congo and Ghana with one round of games remaining. The Egypt football team, who despite having a strong team and fervent support from fans, had always ended up falling short at the final hurdle to reach football’s pinnacle event.
The national team coach, Argentine Hector Cuper, admitted that the pressure of the qualification had prompted him to start taking medication for high blood pressure. Despite the fact that Egypt had another game (away against Ghana) to confirm their qualification, heart-breaks in previous editions of qualifiers had resulted in everyone wanting to seal the ticket to Russia at the earliest.
The wait is now finally over for the Pharaohs.
Egypt’s love for football – the beginnings
There are many different accounts on the origins of the sport of football, but if one asks the Egyptologists, they will mention about a football-like game being in ancient Egypt during feasts of fertility. The ball would be wrapped in a bright-coloured cloth and kicked around by the ancient Egyptians for the occasion. These claims are substantiated by the discovery of balls made of linen from tombs which date to as long back as 2500 BC.
The modern records show the arrival of the contemporary football to the country in 1882 with the British occupation of Egypt. Having formalized the sport, the British were keen to spread it across their colonies and built playgrounds in the camps.
Soldiers would often play a match daily and it is said that a local once observed a game from outside the camp, which soon led to the sport reaching the locals who imitated the soldiers on the streets with the ball. It was a matter of time before the formation of a first local team comprising of Egyptians.
The first game between the British soldiers and a local team (which primarily included players from Cairo) took place in 1883. The two teams would go on to play many matches against each other over time, and the locals took great pride whenever they would beat their occupiers – something which happened multiple times.
The decision to make physical fitness mandatory in schools in Egypt in 1892, led to the establishment of school football teams which introduced the sport to children at an early age and helped spread the popularity of football further in the country.
Egypt entered the 20th century with football having spread to every part of the country, and multiple clubs were established. The Al-Sekka Al-Hadid (Railways) Club was formed in 1903, and its players were mostly British and Italian engineers working for the Railways establishment at the time.
The famous clubs - Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek (then Al-Mukhtalat) were founded in 1907 and 1911 respectively and helped promote the sport among the masses.
The first unofficial tournament at the national level was conducted in 1913, and the first school-level competition was held in the following year. The need to have a formal structure for football in the country was recognized and a meeting of British soldiers and local Egyptian representatives was held in September 1916 to form the EEFA (Egyptian-English Football Association). The first official competition organized by the association was the Sultan Hussein Cup– which was initially dominated by British teams before Al-Mukhtalat won it in 1920-21.
A national team represented Egypt at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. The team lost 2-1 to Italy in the first round but defeated Yugoslavia 4-2 in the game for classification for eighth place.
There was criticism that the team wasn’t truly a representation of the country, and conflict between EEFA and the local representatives led to the formation of the EFA (Egyptian Football Association) in December 1921, which was headed by Gaafar Wali Pasha. The first official competition of the country – the Egypt Cup (or Farouk Cup) had its first edition soon after (and is still active as of 2017), and the Egyptian Premier League was founded in 1948.
Egypt was the first country from Africa and the Middle East to be a member of FIFA (in 1923) and also the first participant from the region in the FIFA World Cup (in the 1934 edition in Italy – lost 4-2 to Hungary in first round). The country also won the inaugural edition of the African Cup of Nations in 1957.
Egypt made their second appearance in the FIFA World Cup in 1990 in Italy. The team had an indifferent tournament where they failed to win a single game and finished bottom of their group for an uneventful exit.
The lack of success in qualifying for football’s top event has often been a sore point for the fans. Political reasons in the mid of 20th century led to the country withdrawing from the qualification processes a few times, and other occasions, the team failed to book its place among the participants of the competition.
The team did come painfully close to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Having finished level with Algeria in the qualification stage with a same number of points, goals scored and goals conceded – hence level on all tiebreaker parameters. With the provision of the only spot for the World Cup from the group, the two teams played a tiebreaker in Sudan.
There were reports of crowd violence before the game, in which Algeria won by a solitary goal, and the result not only led to heartbreak for the Egyptians, but also diplomatic tension between the two countries.
The Pharaohs again came close to World Cup qualification 4 years later, as they faced Ghana in a 2-legged tie, with the winner confirming their spot for the finale at Brazil. A 6-1 thrashing at the hands of the hosts in Kumasi in the first tie almost confirmed Egypt’s fate, and a 2-1 win in the reverse fixture in Cairo was a mere consolation for the team, as they had to resign themselves to waiting for another 4 years for a shot at World Cup glory.
However, Egypt are considered a powerhouse in African football – having won the African Cup of Nations 7 times – the most by any country. It includes a hat-trick of titles won in the 2006, 2008 and 2010 editions. They reached their highest ever FIFA ranking of 9 in 2010 following their tournament victory.
The hat-trick of title wins was followed by another hat-trick, a disappointing one this time, as the Pharaohs failed to qualify for the 2012, 2013 and 2015 editions of the African Cup of Nations. They did, however, participate in the 2017 edition, and eventually finished runners-up, losing to Cameroon in the final.
Issues off the field
The impact of political volatility in Egypt in the past was also felt by the sport of football in the country. The Egyptian Premier League was suspended for two-and-a-half months after the uprisings in the country in 2011.
The following season saw a new low for the sport in Egypt when a riot occurred after the game between Al Ahly and Al Masry on February 1, 2012. The match was played at Port Said Stadium, home of Al Masry, and the home team had defeated the visitors 3-1.
The final whistle was followed by thousands of home team fans storming the stands and pitch in the stadium with knives, stones, clubs and other weapons to attack the players, coaches and fans of Al Ahly.
It is reported that police didn’t do anything to stop the attackers and just stood and watched. According to reports, 74 people were killed in the incident and over 500 were injured. The Egyptian army had to airlift soldiers into the stadium to control the situation. The coach of Al Ahly, Manuel Jose, was punched and kicked during the riot, and the incident prompted him and many players reconsider their futures in the sport.
One of the Egyptian ministers called the riot as “the biggest disaster in the country's football history” as the country’s parliament held an emergency session to discuss the incident and the next steps. The domestic league was later shut down for a period of two years by the government because of the Port Said Stadium incident.
The incident also affected the national side, and it was reflected in the team’s results as they failed to qualify for African Cup of Nations, a tournament they had traditionally dominated, till 2017.
Road to Russia 2018
As one of the top-ranked teams in Africa, Egypt received a bye in the first round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. The team faced off against lowly Chad in the second round for a two-legged tie. The first game was played in Chad, and the coach Cuper would have surely had plenty to ponder over after a surprise 1-0 defeat.
The return leg, however, went as per plan, Egypt convincingly won 4-0, with goals from Mohamed El Nenny, Abdallah Said and Ahmed Hassan, to progress to the third round.
The Pharaohs were placed in Group E of the third round along with Uganda, Ghana and Congo, with the group winner to book their participation at the World Cup. Egypt started off the round well with wins over Congo and Ghana, before a stutter at Uganda saw them lose 0-1, and raise concerns if it would be another failed campaign.
But the team, inspired by their star player Mohamed Salah, ensured it was only a small blip as they beat Uganda in the reverse fixture, and knew that a win over Congo in the following game on October 8 would confirm their qualification.
The grand Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria was the stage. Opened in 2007, the 86,000-capacity all-seater stadium is the ninth largest football stadium in the world. The home fans flocked to it in large numbers in the hope of seeing their team achieve their goal of sealing their qualification for the World Cup.
Salah stepped up yet again to score the opening goal against Congo in the 63rd minute to raise hopes of the team sealing the deal in the game. With the 90-minute mark approaching soon, the fans would have started dreaming glory, and just then Congolese player Bouka Moutou equalized in the 88th minute which dampened the hopes. Egypt’s Mahmoud Hassan, who had come on as a substitute, was fouled inside the penalty box in injury-time.
With the weight of expectations and hopes of an entire country, Salah showed nerves of steel and slotted in the penalty to score his second of the game (and fifth of the qualifiers – the top scorer in Africa) to win the game for his side, and send Egyptians into ecstasy.
The objective had been met. With one game to spare. No hiccups this time around.
Reaction to qualification
Listening to reactions of the Egyptian commentators during Salah’s penalty kick gave a glimpse into what the goal and the qualification meant to the fans.
Such was the enormity of the occasion of Salah’s second goal that the stadium announcer Inas Mazhar was overcome by emotion and stayed silent after the penalty. "Tears were rolling from the eyes of everyone; the players, the staff on the bench, the security officers", he told CNN.
The team was congratulated by leaders and celebrities and the reactions of football fans in Egypt made news worldwide, being tagged as a victory of sport. Fan took to the streets of Cairo with Egypt flags to celebrate, and also collected at the famous Tahrir Square to rejoice – in one of the rare occasions where a crowd gathering was permitted at the place since the 2011 uprisings.
The Pharaohs’ fans will be glad that the captain and goal-keeper Essam El-Hadary came out of retirement to resume playing for the national side. The 44-year-old played a key role in the successful qualification campaign and if he plays for the side in the World Cup next year, he will become the oldest player ever to feature in the event.
Arsenal’s Mohamed El Nenny plays a major role for the side in the midfield, especially to break up attacks by the opposition. Young Ramadan Sobhi, who plays for Stoke City in the English Premier League, is tipped to be a key player for the team in the future.
But coach Hector Cuper’s go-to player, and the team’s driving force, and also the fans’ favourite is undoubtedly Mohamed Salah. The player, who has represented clubs like Chelsea, Fiorentina and AS Roma in the past, and is currently one of the main players at Liverpool, has cemented his position as one of the top footballers at both international and club level. His decisive goals were ultimately the main reason for Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup.
And the fans acknowledge Salah’s contribution for the national side, which is evident by the fact that the player comes out on top in every fan-based poll in which he is part of. Amusingly, Salah was voted Liverpool’s player-of-the-month for August’2017 ahead of teammate Sadio Mane, while the Senegalese went on to win the Premier League player-of-the-month award for the same period.
The Egyptians have every reason to celebrate the team’s qualification for the World Cup. However, there is more in store in this amazing football journey for the country. The next mission has to be to ensure a good show in Russia next year, with the expectation being to qualify for the knockout stages.
One hopes that the issues off-the-field like those which affected Egyptian football earlier in the decade aren’t repeated. The team has a talented pool of players – many of whom are playing in Europe with the best players in the world in the toughest leagues – and has the potential to have many more glorious nights in future like the one they gifted to their country at the Borg El Arab Stadium by confirming their participation in the sport's most prestigious event.