When Egypt suffered a quarter-final exit at the 2002 African Cup of Nations, knives were sharpened for then coach Mahmoud El-Gohary and murmurs of discontent echoed among the fans after what was deemed a complete failure at the time.
By Egypt’s standards, anything less than a semi-final appearance at the biennial showpiece would likely lead to an entire change of the backroom staff and maybe a shake-up of the Egyptian football’s top echelon.
But less than 15 years on, the Pharaohs were just hoping to book their place in the 16-team tournament, a prospect that was never called into question before a dramatic decline in recent years has significantly lowered the bar.
Egypt set an unwanted record of failing to qualify for the Nations Cup three times in a row when they slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Tunisia on Wednesday to miss out on the chance of finishing as the best third-placed side among the seven groups, ensuring they would not be present in Equatorial Guinea in January and February.
This fiasco came on the heels of an unprecedented feat when Egypt won three Nations Cup titles on the trot in 2006, 2008 and 2010 to the extent that the football-mad supporters lost much of their excitement over the African showpiece, prioritizing the team’s aim of reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1990.
Two World Cup qualifying playoffs against Algeria in 2009 and Ghana in 2013 had fans buzzing with excitement although both affairs ended in bitter defeats. It was unthinkable that a Nations Cup qualifying decider would grab the same attention but this is how Egypt went on a downward slide.
Egyptian supporters were glued to their seats when the team played against Tunisia in Monastir, hoping they would secure the two-goal margin win needed to advance to next year’s Equatorial Guinea finals.
But another disappointment led to a flurry of sarcastic comments on social media, with some venting their frustration at the stunning fall from grace.
“We stunned the world when we won three straight Nations Cup titles. And now we are stunning them again by failing to qualify for three straight tournaments,” said one user, who fondly recalled how Egypt used to dismantle the continent’s heavyweights en route to the hat-trick of triumphs.
Coach Shawky Gharib was an assistant to Hassan Shehata when Egypt swept the continent with three straight Nations Cup triumphs but his hope of emulating that feat as a manager were demolished following a series of lackluster displays and poor results, including home and away losses to Tunisia and Senegal.
The 55-year-old was vilified by local media for a number of tactical choices during the qualifiers, with many questioning the credentials of a man best known for steering Egypt to a third-place finish at the 2001 U-20 World Cup in Argentina.
He was particularly blamed for keeping faith with some underperforming players, including Portugal-based defender Aly Ghazal and Zamalek striker Khaled Qamar who were singled out for special criticism after producing below-par and error-ridden performances in the first few games of Group G.
“I apologise to all fans for our inability to reach the Nations Cup. But people should be aware that we are in a rebuilding process that needs time to yield results,” Gharib said, an excuse that was barely accepted by media and fans alike.
“We were also affected by a string of injuries which hit our key players lately.”
Gharib’s sympathizers said he should be given the same chance his predecessor Bob Bradley had, with the American staying at the helm even after Egypt were eliminated from the 2013 Nations Cup qualifiers after losing to minnows Central Africa over two legs.
But Bradley worked in extremely harsh conditions compared to the tenure of Gharib, having had to deal with the cancellation of the Egyptian Premier League which left him with no option but to arrange consecutive low-key friendly games to prepare his side, who fell at the last hurdle in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers after a humiliating 7-3 aggregate defeat by Ghana.
Gharib, who is likely to be sacked, had the luxury of picking players from the domestic competition, which remains short on quality but at least allows the national team coach to keep an eye on any promising footballer while in real action.
However, the fans still yearn for the days when a star-studded squad featuring the likes of Mohamed Abou-Treika, Wael Gomaa and Ahmed Hassan proved too strong for Africa’s big guns, including the Ivory Coast and Cameroon.
The delicate touch of retired playmaker Abou-Treika and the timely and solid interceptions of former central defender Gomaa were sorely missed as Egypt were outplayed in a qualifying run to forget.
Former skipper Ahmed Hassan, who used to pull the strings in midfield and was named as the Nations Cup best player in 2006 and 2010, watched Egypt lost to Tunisia from a bench seat as a football director, wondering if the quality of his generation could ever be matched.
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