Egypt collected a perfect six points from their first two games in the African qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup in a sign that a fourth appearance in the global football showpiece is well within reach.
Though it’s still much too early – only two games have been played with eight remaining – going by what has been played so far, the results, and Egypt’s vast superiority in the group, the Pharaohs not only look like they will top their group, bringing automatic qualification in 2026, but could book a spot in the next World Cup one or two games before all the group matches are played.
Egypt thrashed Djibouti 6-0 in their opening game on Thursday evening in Cairo. Three days later, Egypt blanked Sierra Leone 2-0 in Liberia (an away game for both countries as Sierra Leone does not have FIFA-approved football stadiums).
Egypt’s Portuguese coach Rui Vitoria insists that “there are no easy games in football” but sometimes there are. Against Djibouti, the highlight was Egypt’s Liverpool star Mohamed Salah scoring four goals, ending a three-game international goal drought.
Against Sierra Leone, Mahmoud Trezeguet, recalled to the starting lineup, struck in the 18th minute and then sealed the victory in the 62nd minute.
Despite the victory, Egypt had luck on their side against Sierra Leone. A clear first half handball penalty by Egypt’s defender Ali Gabr was not awarded; Trezeguet appeared to have handled the ball for his first goal and was fortunate in his second after his shot took a wicked deflection; plus a questionable red card was shown to Tyrese Fornah for a high boot challenge on Hamdi Fathi. Without the services of VAR, all three decisions went Egypt’s way.
There was nothing lucky about Salah’s exploits against Djibouti, a nation that had only won twice before in 22 World Cup qualifiers since they began participating in 2000. He scored four goals for the first time in his international career and only the second time in his overall career, the previous occasion being against Watford in the Premier League back in 2018.
With the four goals, Salah, 31, now ranks second on Egypt’s all-time top scorers list with 53 goals in 92 games for his country, behind the legendary retired striker Hossam Hassan, who amassed 68 goals.
To put Salah’s record even more in perspective, Cristiano Ronaldo’s latest goal, against Liechtenstein in Euro 2024 qualifying, raised the tally of the Portuguese, now 38, to a world record-extending 128th international goal.
Moreover, Salah became Egypt’s highest goal scorer in the history of World Cup qualifiers, surpassing retired midfielder Mohamed Abou Treika’s record of 15 goals.
For history buffs, the encounter with Sierra Leone marked an intriguing coincidence. In the 2011 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers, Salah and his teammate Mohamed Al-Nenni of Arsenal, played their first international game against – Sierra Leone. It was also Egypt’s first ever meeting with Sierra Leone. The Pharaohs were held to a 1-1 draw in the game at home and suffered an away 2-1 defeat when Salah and Al-Nenni picked up their first caps. In the end, neither team qualified for the AFCON finals played in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Despite delivering a beautiful assist for Trezeguet’s second goal, against Sierra Leone this week, Salah had an uneventful outing. However, there were brief fireworks near the end of the match after Salah was escorted off the pitch by men in military uniforms following a pitch invasion which targeted the Liverpool star.
Stewards in yellow jackets ran onto the pitch and tackled a pitch invader close to where Salah was standing, throwing punches at the perpetrator on the floor before guiding him off the pitch at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex.
For the 2026 World Cup qualifiers, Egypt were drawn into Group A alongside Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
At the time of writing, after two games, Egypt topped Group A with six points. Guinea Bissau had four, Sierra Leone one and Djibouti zero. Burkina Faso and Ethiopia had played one game each and were set to face off on Tuesday.
Egypt are aiming for a fourth World Cup appearance, the last being in Russia 2018. None of their opponents in the group have ever reached the World Cup. By dint of reaching the AFCON final once in 2013 before going down to Nigeria, Burkina Faso look set to be Egypt’s primary rival in the group (Egypt have won AFCON, which starts in January in Cote d’Ivoire) a record seven times.
Egypt are set to resume their qualifying campaign on 3 June next year against Burkina Faso. It is an exceptionally long break, one in which Vitoria will be tasked with keeping the team intact.
He flashed a disciplinarian streak after scratching three key players from the squad ahead of the encounter with Sierra Leone. Reports suggested that Vitoria was displeased with the attitudes of Emam Ashour, Hussein Al-Shahat, and Tarek Hamed during training, apparently because the trio were miffed by not featuring in the Djibouti clash. Hence, they were not on the flight to Liberia.
The 2026 World Cup will for the first time be held in three countries: the US, Canada and Mexico. And for the first time, a record 48 countries will be participating.
Nine African groups of six teams each will play in a home-and-away round-robin qualifying format. The nine group winners will qualify for the World Cup – as opposed to the usual five - while the four best group runners-up will be drawn into inter-confederation play-offs that could produce African representative No 10.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly