AFCON 2019: Egypt made a perfect run but...

Egypt finished its three group games with maximum points but its performance is still not convincing

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Friday 5 Jul 2019,
Egypt's forward Mohamed Salah (L) fights for the ball with DR Congo's forward Elia Meschak during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) football match between Egypt and DR Congo at the Cairo International Stadium on June 26, 2019 AFP

The group stage in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is over but questions surrounding the level of play of host Egypt persist.

Egypt finished atop its Group A with three out of three wins for nine points. Five goals for and none against. No major injuries save for an Achilles rupture to the third-string goalie. Four yellow cards that will be cancelled starting from Round 16. No red cards. That kind of record and situation should instill confidence in the team and its supporters as the country goes for a record-extending eighth African crown.

However, in the three matches, against Zimbabwe, DR Congo and Uganda, Egypt was fairly flat and has yet to show that it can, or even deserves, to go all the way. Its three opponents were relative minnows compared to what’s coming next.

One positive point, though, needs to be accentuated.

In any championship in any sport, it’s always a plus that the host nation is still in it. The longer a host remains in a tournament, the better off the tournament is. Hosts bring zest and life to an event, keeping it interesting and exciting.

The moment a host is forced to leave, the tournament instantly deflates. Much of the enthusiasm is sucked out. A lot of the passion is lost as fans and the media quickly lose their appetite for the remainder of the contest.

It was never seriously in doubt that Egypt would go through. From the moment the draw was held for the AFCON, the stars were smiling down on Egypt after it had been placed in a modest group. It was a near certainty that Egypt would finish first and, if that failed, a second-place finish in the worst case scenario. This AFCON format in which the top two teams in the group, in addition to the next four best teams in the tournament would advance to the second round, virtually ensured Egypt’s ticket to the last 16.

Still, sports has a funny way of upending the norm. A bad bounce here, a couple of bad breaks there, and suddenly, what looks like a lock turns into a major upset.  

Consequently, that Egypt is going to the last 16 is an accomplishment. It is as good for the team as it is for the country.

But if Egypt intends on moving forward and eventually corralling the ultimate prize, it is going to have to play much, much better. Egypt’s results so far do not truly reflect how it is playing. Great on paper but less so on the field.

There is a thread running through the three group games: the other teams play and Egypt wins. The other teams shoot and Egypt scores. The other teams miss and Egypt cashes in.
In the 2-0 win against DR Congo, in the first half Congo hit the post, then Egypt scored. Congo struck the bar, then Egypt scored again. End of match.

Uganda had 16 shots, including 11 on target, to Egypt’s five. It also won nine corners compared to just one for Egypt. Result: Egypt 2, Uganda 0. End of match.

Egypt is reacting, not acting. It is not taking the initiative. It stands idly by, watching, like the rest of us, what its opponents are trying to do and when they fail, Egypt shows them how it should be done.

If not for the defender and the attacker, team captain Ahmed Al-Mohamadi and Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah respectively, both of whom scored two apiece in the final two games, and some fine goalkeeping by Mohamed Al-Shennawi against Uganda, we would not be speaking about nine points.

This policy of let’s wait and watch might work against small fish but against fiercer and more efficient bull sharks – Morocco and Algeria come to mind – the game called Let’s Wait and See What Happens will not work.

How much longer can Egypt’s luck hold out?

Also, somebody should tell the team that a football game is 90 minutes, not 45. In the three games, Egypt closed shop in the second half. Whether because the Egyptians have no staying power, were leading in every half, didn’t believe the opposition was good enough to level the score or win, or because it was too hot, Egypt put up a For Sale sign much too early. Against more physical teams, Egypt will have to play the full match, so it better get used to it starting from Round 16 when the opponent will be easier to contend with.  

Speaking of heat, midway through the group stage, the talk was not about action on the field but off it. Egypt’s winger Amr Warda made headlines for all the wrong reasons: sexually harassing several women on social media.

Warda’s video apology quashed any doubts about who harassed who and who began what. Which makes the U-turn by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), first to scratch Warda from the team, then recall him 48 hours later, all the more disturbing. If the EFA was blasted for having Warda’s back, the criticism levied on two of his teammates, Al-Mohamadi and Salah, was also warranted. For Al-Mohamadi to imply that this is Warda’s personal life, that it’s nobody else’s business, and that what matters is what he does on the field is wholly irresponsible. Warda is a public figure, wears the colours of the Egyptian flag and appears in a bundle of TV commercials. He is supposed to be a role model, especially for children and teenagers, and especially for those currently playing football and wanting one day to be just like him.

As for Salah’s comment that people who make mistakes should be given a second chance, this  is Warda’s second chance, maybe even his third. In 2017, Portuguese football club CD Feriense terminated Warda’s contract over claims that he sexually harassed – are you ready? – the wives of two of his teammates. He didn’t last three days on the team.

If the reports are true, Warda’s inappropriate behaviour goes back when playing for Egypt’s youth team.

Warda played in the second half against Zimbabwe. He hasn’t been seen since. It is not known if he will make any further appearances in AFCON but if he does, it shall be interesting to see and hear the crowd’s reaction.

Warda needs help and there’s nothing embarrassing about admitting it. However, until he lies down on a couch, he should not get anywhere near the Egyptian team or any other squad.

It’s hard to tell if the EFA brought Warda back because of Salah’s intervention. Salah is the darling of Egyptian fans and wherever he goes they follow, figuratively and literally. But those who support Warda are indicting themselves as well. What Warda did is unacceptable and to defend him is wrong. It’s noble to come to a friend’s aid, especially in trying times, but when the friend acts immorally, the job of his mates is to open his eyes, not close theirs.

*This story was published in Al-Ahram Weekly

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)


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