Egypt coach Hassan Shehata was forced to the exit door after the Pharaohs’ scoreless draw against South Africa on Sunday, which blew the team’s chances of defending their title in the 2012 African Cup of Nations.
The 61-year-old tactician has come in for fierce criticism lately, questioning his tactical choices and his failure to pump new blood into the team. Pressure also increased on Shehata for non-footballing reasons, when his support for ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak drew the ire of many and led to calls for his departure.
It was a shameful end to a glorious career for Shehata, who masterminded a six-year golden era, claiming three continental titles to become the most successful coach of Egyptian and African history.
The African coach of the year in 2008 and 2010 transformed the Egyptian football landscape since taking over the Pharaohs in November 2004, when he succeeded the Italian coach Marco Tardelli. He stormed Africa, winning unprecedented straight titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and mounting some breathtaking and attractive displays.
Once a prolific centre-forward with Zamalek, Shehata did not find his way to the top paved with good intentions. His appointment as Egypt manager came with great scepticism. The former Whites' number 14 quit playing in the mid 1980s and opted for a managerial career. He moved around among several small clubs in the Gulf and Egypt, developing a reputation as a promotion specialist.
In 2001 he was named Egypt's youth coach, leading the team to the African crown two years later. He took over Arab Contractors, realizing a stunning performance beating Ahly and Zamalek to clinch the Cup and Super Cup titles’ respectively and promoting the team to the top flight. However, for most experts and commentators he didn’t have the profile for the job of one of the most prestigious nations on the continent.
Shehata – a master of football’s psychological aspects - hit-back at all these critics by winning a fifth record title for the Pharaohs on home soil, beating a star-studded Ivory Coast side with the likes of Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, Aruna Kone and Aruna Dindane. Then he amazed spectators with a scintillating display in Ghana 2008, producing one of the finest ever performances of the Egyptian team to clinch a sixth title after crushing Africa’s power houses Ivory Coast 4-1 in the semis and Cameroon, 4-2 in the group stage and 1-0 in the final.
He glamorized the international stage during the Confederation's Cup in 2009, pushing Egypt towards a footballing style never on show before. Shehata had to show all his creativity and art to sink the World Champions Italy in 2006 at 1-0 in an unforgettable performance. However, the team failed to seal a semi-final spot after a heavy defeat against a physical US team 3-0.
Angola in 2010 was probably his most difficult test as the team’s morale was down after the World Cup exit and the media had their knives out. He had also to go through the African Cup of Nations without inspirational playmaker Mohamed Abou Treika and his star striker Amr Zaki, both injured. The Pharaohs inched to the top bit-by-bit, moving past Nigeria and Cameroon before crushing Algeria 4-0 and finally beating Ghana 1-0 in the final.
Discipline, luck and tactics
Shehata is known for his strict disciplinary code. He made his point clear in 2006 when he had to go on a head-to-head against the team’s ultimate star, Ahmed “Mido” Hossam. Mido seemed frustrated and got in a quarrel with the coach after being replaced by Amr Zaki in the semi-final against Senegal, with the score locked at 1-1. Even after making a public apology, Mido has been excluded from the group and only played a few caps since then. Shehata has proven his authority in many similar cases with players liked Mohamed Barakat, Mohamed Zidan, Mahmoud Abdel-Razeq and Amr Zaki. But behind his big moustache, Shehata seems to hide a very tender face. “People and media don’t see the whole picture. He’s like a father to us and gives us a great attention and care. We make jokes with him. He’s not a young coach and it’s strange to see somebody of his age who is so close to the team. He always keeps advising us whether it be in our careers or our lives,” said Zidan, who once before was punished for skipping some friendly games.
The "baraka (blessing) of Shehata"
People love to talk about Shehata as “Sheikh Hassan", referring to his luck which sometimes overcame some bad tactical choices. The coach doesn’t deny his luck, especially as he is known to be very superstitious. However, he has proven to be a master of tactics as he taught his men to switch between several tactical formations like 3-5-2, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, and 3-4-3. He made some excellent choices to reverse situations against Nigeria and Cameroon in Angola in 2010, to confirm his reputation as the coach of the decade.
World Cup and qualifiers jinx
Shehata has reached the skies and achieved all his dreams, except for a single regret: the World Cup flop. “We should have been there. It’s the worst moment of my career. We had so many hard times and some terrible circumstances but I just couldn’t believe that we missed the World Cup,” he said.
The World Cup 2010 ticket seemed within touching distance but an awful start to the campaign and a decisive defeat allowed it slip away to Algeria.
It became a habit, as Egypt always seemed to be struggling in any qualifiers regardless of their opponents’ calibre. “We have always been struggling during qualifiers. The team is at its best during big tournaments where the players have their concentration, physical and technical condition at a peak,” Shehata said.
This time the stumble was deadly for the coach and the team, who are now looking for total reform, hoping to re-conquer Africa in a few years.