Egypt face Ethiopia away on Thursday after beating Guinea in their first group game as the qualifiers for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) begin.
After their opening match in Cairo Stadium on 5 June, Egypt’s 1-0 win put them on top of Group D with three points, level with Malawi, who beat Ethiopia 2-1 earlier the same day.
Egypt’s win gave coach Ehab Galal a debut victory although the sole winning goal came with just three minutes remaining as substitute Mustafa Mohamed’s deflected shot eluded goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone.
It is unthinkable that Egypt would miss out at next year’s AFCON in Cote d’Ivoire. Egypt are the record seven-time winner of this tournament and just a few months ago reached the final in Cameroon. Seeing that the top two in each group will reach next year’s tournament, it is taken for granted that Egypt will be there.
The country’s more immediate concern is to try to forget the many setbacks that have piled up since the start of this year and to pretty much start from scratch.
In February, against the odds, Egypt reached the AFCON final but could not clear the final hurdle, going down to Senegal on penalties.
A little over a month later, in a two-game home and away African qualifier for this year’s World Cup in Qatar, again Egypt played Senegal, again they reached penalties and again Senegal came out victorious.
The two collapses led to the ouster of Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz and the introduction of Galal, an Egyptian at the helm, a rarity for the team these days.
The international losses were not the only damages inflicted on Egypt’s players. Cairo giants Ahly, who make up a large part of the Egyptian squad, were bundled out of the African Champions League, taken down in the final against Wydad of Casablanca.
Ahly, the defending champions, had wanted to extend their record 10 crowns in the tournament and were bidding to become the first club to win the title three times in succession.
But Wydad ruined the scenario, taking the final 2-0 thanks to a brace by Zouheir Al-Moutaraji to add a third such trophy to their history shelf.
Ahly’s reputation as a club with authority in Egypt and the rest of Africa and the Arab world was also bruised after they failed to have the match postponed and the venue in Morocco changed to a neutral site. Ahly’s protests that the Mohamed V Stadium in Casablanca was decided at the 11th hour in the tournament, when it was all but certain Wydad would reach the final, were made in vain to The Confederation of African Football and The Court of Arbitration for Sport. The club’s normally powerful voice did not resonate this time. Out the window went Ahly’s prestige, a hat-trick record, a place in the FIFA Club World Cup and prize money worth $2.5 million for the winner.
Egypt’s players abroad had a tough last few weeks as well. Star forward Mohamed Salah could not help his Liverpool team to the hoped for quadruple, having to settle for the Carabao and FA Cups, not the more prestigious Champions League, losing to Real Madrid in the final, and finishing second in the Premier League, just one point behind Manchester City.
In the league, Salah had an electrifying first half of the season, finding the net 20 times by 12 March. But he scored just four goals in his last 18 games, apparently unable to shake off the double African blow.
Against Real, despite a pre-game warning that Liverpool had a score to settle after their 3-1 final loss to the Spaniards four years earlier, Salah huffed and puffed, taking nine shots on goal (six on target) but could not find a way past the brick wall called goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, to lose out once again on the world’s most coveted club football award.
Salah’s individual achievement was winning the Premier League scoring title with 23 goals but even that he had to share with Tottenham striker Son Heung-Min.
Egyptian international midfielder Mohamed Al-Nenni, too, came up short for next season’s Champions League when it seemed Arsenal had sewn up a sure place. But in the last few weeks of the season Arsenal blew a substantial lead and saw Tottenham pip them to the fourth and final place.
So the hope is for Egypt to put the recent past in the rearview mirror and to start the AFCON qualifiers fresh, with a new coach at the helm.
Egypt, however, were far from inspiring against Guinea and even though they captured three valuable points against a team that will probably be their closest rivals in the group, they need to play at a faster clip and show more intention.
The fortunes of the national team are a stern test for Galal, 54, who does not have prior international experience. The clubs he has coached, most recently Pyramids, do play with more offensive purpose as opposed to Queiroz’s cautious defensive approach. But Pyramids were eliminated from the African Confederation Cup in the quarters in April, ending Galal’s tenure in disappointment. The club had reached the competition’s final in 2020 and semis last year, and were expected to go one step better.
Against Guinea, Egypt had their chances especially in the second half, and deserved the win, but were expected to be better considering Galal’s team differed little from Queiroz’s side. But whether the players were overconfident playing an opponent of less quality or because Galal is new on the job as he seeks to find the right formations and strategies, Egypt were not sharp and needed a lucky goal in Cairo Stadium to prevent an embarrassing home draw.
Next stop is on 9 June against Ethiopia which have won one AFCON tournament, in 1962 when they were hosts. They haven’t done much since, coming last in their group in this year’s AFCON with one point, six behind leaders Cameroon.
Egypt and Ethiopia have met 16 times, with Egypt winning 11. Their last meeting was a scoreless tie in 2002 in the Africa Games.
Also on Thursday Malawi will be playing Guinea. All three goals in the Malawi-Ethiopia game came from penalties.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.