Reigning champions Egypt are not prepared to accept missing out on the African Cup of Nations, a tournament they won a record seven times, as they host South Africa in a do-or-die clash on Sunday.
A disastrous start to their qualifying campaign saw Egypt collect a solitary point from three games to set the alarm bells ringing over their prospects of appearing in next year’s Nations Cup finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Reaching the biennial tournament has always been a formality, apart from a few occasions when Egypt had to pull out of the qualifiers due to exceptional circumstances, such as wars or serious conflicts in the region.
Egypt endured some hard times due to January’s revolution that put an end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule but nothing can placate the expected anger of the country’s football-mad fans if the Pharaohs fail to beat South Africa at Cairo’s Military Academy Stadium.
The team, which has displayed an attractive brand of football since coach Hassan Shehata took over in late 2004, had already stumbled before the popular uprising when they were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Sierra Leone before suffering a stunning 1-0 defeat at lowly Niger.
In March, matters went from bad to worse when Egypt leaked a last-gasp goal to lose 1-0 away to Group G leaders South Africa, who are favourites to reach the Nations Cup as they lie on top with six points.
“It is not logical that the defending champions, Egypt, will not qualify for the finals,” said Shehata, whose future remains under scrutiny despite the unprecedented success of the national team under his guidance.
“We will bear in mind the memory of being the tournament champions for the last three successive editions. We will do our best in the field to defend Egypt’s reputation and also to regain confidence in ourselves.”
Nothing but a victory over South Africa can keep alive Egypt’s slim chances of booking a place in the Nations Cup. The winners of the 11 groups and the best two runners-up will qualify for the tournament.
South Africa coach Pitso Mosimane said his side would not be intimidated by the expected enthusiastic atmosphere at the Military Academy Stadium, which will host the game instead of the much bigger Cairo Stadium, apparently for security reasons.
The 74,100-seat Cairo Stadium saw an ugly pitch invasion during Zamalek’s African Champions League clash against Tunisia’s Club Africain in April.
"We have been to Freetown to play Sierra Leone and we have just come from Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). We know what happened in Freetown and the same thing will happen in Cairo, even worse in Cairo, but I think we have a team for that,” said Mosimane, who outwitted Shehata to help South Africa beat Egypt in their previous game.
“We have players who have played in the World Cup and in the Confederations Cup… we should be able to take the stress and deal with a team that is facing desperate times.”
Egypt will miss strike duo Emad Meteb of Ahly and Amr Zaki of Zamalek after Shehata deemed both unfit to play despite recovering from their respective injuries lately. Ahly playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika is also out with a calf complaint.
Skipper Ahmed Hassan, who missed the defeat against South Africa, is back after shrugging off a serious knee injury. Borussia Dortmund’s Mohamed Zidan is expected to spearhead Egypt’s attack, which may also include Zamalek’s in-form winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razek ‘Shikabala’.
South Africa are likely to play without Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Steven Pienaar, who injured his knee in training just a few days after recovering from a groin strain.