The 2018 World Cup is now a little over two months away, but seeing Egypt play in the run-up, you would think the country had all the time in the world.
Take the second friendly international Egypt played with Greece last month (we’ll get to the first friendly against Portugal). Against Greece, Egypt tried out eight new faces which did not get the chance to play against Portugal.
Any high school coach of any team sport will tell you introducing that many new players to a side so close to a major championship – and what’s more major than the World Cup? – would be suicidal. It’s not the time to experiment.
For the past three years, ever since he arrived on Egypt’s shores, coach Hector Cuper and his staff have gotten to know every single player inside and outside of Egypt by heart. Whether in person, on TV or on videos, they’ve been closely watching all of them.
They have monitored the Egyptian domestic league and cup games. They used players that took Egypt to the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
It was pretty much that same team which qualified for the World Cup in Russia. That leads to high school lesson No 2: don’t fiddle around with a winning formula.
Cuper should not break up the team when he is almost sure who will be his starting 11 in Russia.
Barring serious injury or an incredible drop in form, does anybody really believe that super Liverpool star Mohamed Salah who currently leads the Premier League in scoring, will not be on the first team? Or midfield maestro Abdallah Said, or the twin towers Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr, or right back Ahmed Fathi who has over 100 caps, or the effervescent left back Mohamed Abdel-Shafi, or Arsenal middle man Mohamed Al-Nenni, or the bulwark Tarek Hamed? It’s a sure bet that these eight players will be on the field when the whistle blows for Egypt’s first game in the World Cup against Uruguay.
That leaves three positions up for grabs, and that’s the way it should be. The basic makeup of any of the 32 teams going to the World Cup should by now be known, with only an extremely limited number of vacancies left open. This is the time to get your act together, not rehearse for the opening scene.
We’re changing so much we can’t even get the uniforms to be uniform. Against Portugal the colours of the Egyptian kit were white jerseys, black shorts and white socks. The fashion show changed against Greece: red, white and black. Is there a third ensemble on the way?
Cuper is wasting valuable opportunities of those who will play in Russia.
Egypt is playing only five warm-up games in preparation; already two are out of the way. In comparison, when Egypt qualified for the 1990 World Cup, it played 14 matches before going to Italy — 11 friendlies and three games in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Those 14 tests began in January of that year, six months before the World Cup began, not three as is the case now.
There are precious few games left for the players. As of writing, only four matches are left in the domestic league while the local cup has reached the quarter-final stage. There are as well only three friendlies left: Kuwait, Belgium and Colombia.
We must make the most of what’s left. It’s not the time to meddle with the team. It’s time to settle on the team and stick to it.
The latest news coming out of team Egypt is that three entirely new players will be tested during the Kuwait friendly at the end of May, less than three weeks ahead of the start of the World Cup.
The present management is calling these debut appearances a surprise and “a good opportunity to try new faces”. Good management, though, would consider it the height of folly.
This will be only Egypt’s third World Cup appearance, the first in 28 years. The country is eyeing a spot in the second round. Failing that, the least the players can do is play decent football on the world’s biggest soccer stage. But they can’t do that if they don’t know who’s on their own team.
If it’s combinations that’s worrying Cuper, he should be able to determine by now who plays best with whom. And if he’s concerned about formations, if he doesn’t know by now which players are best suited for 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 or 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 or whatever, then what has the Argentinian been watching for the past three years? Evita?
This is a coach who has gone to two consecutive Champions League finals with Valencia. Albeit he lost both, but with that kind of experience and history, Cuper and co should be able to pick the Egyptian team with their eyes closed.
When Brazil and Germany, right now one and two in the world, played two friendlies each last month, including a titanic clash against each other, each time their respective teams made no major changes.
If no-one is hurt, then stadium spectators, the TV audience and observers expect to see the same players, especially the stars, every time, be they Manuel Neuer, Tony Kroos and Thomas Mueller, or Neymar, Dani Alves and Thiago Silva.
Friendlies are not the real thing but they do affect world rankings. Just as important, fans want to see their idols. Cuper did a disservice to Egyptian fans in Zurich and those watching on TV. They crave, for example, to see their darling Mo Salah, Egypt’s best ever football export.
But Salah played only against Portugal; he didn’t even suit up for Greece. Don’t people like to watch Portugal because of Ronaldo and Argentina because of Messi and Brazil because of Neymar? Without these superstars, these countries are definitely missing something and their fans are definitely missing out on something.
Had Ronaldo or Salah missed the Portugal-Egypt game, the entire encounter would have been deflated.
The result of this game of musical chairs was an impoverished performance against Greece which won 1-0. Aside from a near goal early from Momen Zakaria whose shot was parried by the outstretched leg of goalkeeper Andreas Gianniotis, Egypt’s players were getting acquainted with each other.
They were here, there, everywhere and anywhere but doing hardly anything. The game they were playing is called getting to know you. It was only when Cuper introduced Said in the second half did Egypt pick up its game.
It was Said’s pinpoint long ball to Mahmoud Kahraba that could have tied the game had Kahraba done better with his close-range effort. Said is a certain starter in Russia, accentuating the point that there is no replacement for a big-name star.
Those new faces against Greece were also overreaching, trying desperately to please their boss in their first and maybe last attempt to make the team. They were neither in control of the game nor themselves, defeating the whole purpose of their selection.
Four days earlier, against Portugal, Egypt played with its big guns. Sure, Portugal won 2-1 thanks to two headers in extra time by the great Ronaldo. It is also true that Portugal had the better of play.
The statistics speak for themselves: Portugal 59 per cent possession, Egypt 41 per cent, Portugal 18 shots on goal, Egypt five; Portugal seven corners, Egypt zero.
Despite the lopsided picture, Egypt was ahead 1-0 thanks to a second half Salah special, a sublime curling, low left-foot drive from outside the area that gave Beto no chance.
Egypt, in fact could have scored in the first half had not Beto and Rolando both thrown themselves at the foot of Said as he tried to angle the ball past them.
Until the last fateful couple of minutes, it was Egypt’s game to win, against the reigning European champions and the best player in the world, five times.
The near historic triumph was a consequence of Egypt fielding its best, not the rest.
Cuper’s question marks hover over who will be the starting goalkeeper and who will be the centre forward; the absence of particularly the latter, a pure goal-getter, is a glaring weakness.
Cuper must worry about his substitutes. Any team that wants to go far in a tournament of one month needs a strong bench. No argument there.
However, nobody triumphs using eight replacements. Just like the two or three openings available for Egypt’s starters, so too the subs you can really depend on should be of the same number.
Soon it will be weeks, then days left for the World Cup. This is the time to polish up, not start from scratch.
Time is running out on Cuper and Egypt. We don’t have an eternity left. There’s only time to smooth the rough edges.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly