Egypt comfortably beat Niger 3-0 in an international friendly on Friday, ensuring that their new coach from Portugal Rui Vitoria starts off on a winning note.
But owing to the low pecking order of the visitors in the football world, a proper assessment of the Egyptian national team is not possible at this moment in time.
In Alexandria, Egypt’s Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah got the ball rolling, using his vaunted left foot to fire in two minutes before the half.
Nantes striker Mustafa Mohamed made it 2-0 after 55 minutes and a Salah penalty 12 minutes later put the game out of Niger’s reach.
The game was one of three friendlies that Vitoria, who was brought over in July on a four-year contract, will use as he familiarizes himself with his new surroundings.
However, how much he got out of the Niger encounter is highly debatable. Niger is 119 in the world, hardly a world power, while Egypt stands at 40. Friendly games that are played against teams weaker than yourself tend to inflate one’s own worth. They are great if you are looking for an easy win and need a morale booster. And Egypt certainly needs to reassert itself and regain much of its confidence that was lost after the country failed to win the Africa Cup of Nations in February after reaching the final and failed, a month later, to qualify for this year’s World Cup in Qatar.
But to be of any benefit, friendlies ought to be played against teams either equal to or better than you. Only then can players and their coaches truly see where they stand.
Obviously, the Egyptian football association decided to start off slowly and surely with Vitoria before engaging with bigger boys.
Evaluating Egypt and Vitoria was made more difficult because of his decision to use some players who had never worn the country’s colours before. He was of course correct to do so because he needs to see as many players as possible perform. There is no point in playing a carbon copy of the team that lost those two heart-breaking soccer prizes just a few months ago. But new faces on any team need time to gel with the regulars. Also in evidence in Alex was the rust the players tried to shake off; they are still officially on vacation, awaiting next month’s start of the new season.
Vitoria replaces Egyptian coach Ehab Galal who lasted for all of three matches. Vitoria is expected to do much better, having steered Benfica to two league championships. However, he has never managed a national team and the difference is stark. Whereas coaches of clubs sleep, eat, drink and practically live with their players a good nine months of the year, those who head national teams keep irregular working hours. Most times they cannot assemble their squad for more than a few weeks at a time. They might not even meet up with their players for months on end. Example: Egypt’s next official match, a qualifier for the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations, will be in March next year.
Having been in Egypt for just a couple of months, Vitoria has already said some things which have raised eyebrows. He predicted Egypt would reach the 2026 World Cup, a bold and surprising forecast given that the country has reached world football’s showpiece just three times, plus the fact that coaches rarely go out on such a limb for fear of not fulfilling the goal.
He claimed that Egypt’s footballers ‘’enjoy good fitness’’ when the lack of fitness has been a bugaboo of football in this country for decades.
He also had a worrying comment: “Anyways I will not explain my choices again.’’ That was issued in a press conference when asked why he had not chosen Zamalek goalkeeper Mohamed Awwad, who has been in excellent form, for the game against Niger, not even selected for the bench.
His explanation that Awwad was not called up because Zamalek had a game to play in the African Champions League was unconvincing. Zamalek duo Ahmed ‘Zizo’ Sayed and Mahmoud ‘El-Wensh’ Hamdi left the Pharaohs camp in Alexandria immediately after playing in the Niger game to participate with their team against FC Elect Chad in the African Championship on Sunday. And goalkeepers do not expend half as much energy as outfielders.
The bigger point is that coaches of any sport are supposed to tell journalists, who in turn tell the public, why they do this and why they do that. They are supposed to explain why they pick some players over others, including much more.
If they don’t, they come off as standoffish, on the defensive and unsure of what they are doing. They are disrespecting journalists, as if saying to their faces “what would you know?”
It also deprives the public of seeing what’s going on in the heads of coaches.
It also means journalists can only guess at the inner workings of the thought processes of a coach and his decision-making, not the ideal way to report the news.
Vitoria is taking a page right out of his second to last predecessor, Carlos Queiroz, another Portuguese who announced early in his tenure that he was not to be questioned about his selections.
Still, Vitoria’s comments could go by the wayside if Egypt can get back on track in qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast in 2024. So far, Egypt have three points from two games, last in Group D with Ethiopia, Malawi and Guinea.
It is inconceivable that Egypt, the record seven-time champion of Africa, will not make it out of this group but Vitoria must dig Egypt out of the hole it dug itself into.
Before that can happen, Vitoria had a second friendly game with Liberia on Tuesday (after Al-Ahram Weekly went to press). In all likelihood, even without Salah and Mohamed who were to be rested, Egypt will beat Liberia, who are worse than Niger, leading to yet another hollow celebration.
In November, Egypt will play another friendly against Belgium, the world’s second best country in football. That will show a clearer picture of what the Egyptian national team is really made of.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.