Why Egypt fell short in AFCON?

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

Egypt did not win a single game in Cote d’Ivoire, making it one of the worst African campaigns the Pharaohs ever had. Alaa Abdel-Ghani provides six takeaways from Egypt’s very brief stay in AFCON 2024

Egyptain Football Team

 

Poor preparation: Egypt’s Portuguese coach Rui Vitoria and the Egyptian Football Association apparently decided that the qualifications for this Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), plus the qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup were enough to get the team ready for the tournament in Cote d’Ivoire.

While the matches were many, the opposition were mostly minnows (teams cannot be properly assessed when they play against much lesser rivals. Their strengths are exaggerated and their weaknesses are not easy to spot).

Beating such mediocrity also leads to overconfidence. Egypt won most of those games comfortably. Following every one of those easy-peasy victories, the team would pat themselves on the back for a job well done and be lauded by pundits to the hilt, as if they had beaten Brazil, or had become Brazil. That bravado provided a false sense of security that would belie their true standard.

In the middle of the qualifiers, Egypt played two friendly internationals late last year against much stronger opponents, tying with Algeria 1-1 and losing 3-1 to Tunisia. Those results should have flashed big red warning signs that Egypt were in fact quite ordinary. But Vitoria and the EFA downplayed the significance of friendly encounters and continued with the sham that they had a really good team. 

Leaky defence: Few teams can withstand letting in an average of almost two goals a game, yet coming out on top. Seven goals were scored against Egypt in their four games.

Two years ago, Egypt allowed only two goals in their seven games which included four 120-minute overtime marathons. In Cote d’Ivoire, Ahly club pair Yasser Ibrahim and Mohamed Abdel-Minaam, who have been playing together for some years, should have been the central defenders, leaving out the slow of-foot Ahmed Hegazi whose mistimed slide for the ball led to Mozambique taking the lead in the first group game. 

Salah’s injury uproar: While a case could be made that the absences of key Egyptian players against the DR Congo led to the losing outcome (dislocated shoulder suffered by Mohamed Al-Shinnawi, widely regarded as the best Africa-based goalkeeper, and a concussion and a cold which scratched improving midfielder Emam Ashour and Eintracht Frankfurt striker Omar Marmoush) it was the injury to skipper Mohamed Saleh that disrupted the team the most.

Salah’s hamstring tear, picked up at the half of the second game against Ghana, proved highly contentious. In the one-and-a-half games the Liverpool ace had played until then, Salah was barely visible on the field (although he was playing more of a centre forward, an unfamiliar position for him).

Falling off Egypt’s radar was similar to Salah’s many ineffective games for the national team as opposed to what he does for Liverpool. The late penalty he scored against Mozambique to tie the game did not quieten the social media crowd, with many believing the team would be better off without him.

There was, however, the other side that argued one of the world’s best players could not be sidelined in a tournament as important and competitive as the AFCON.

Once it was established the injury would prevent Salah from playing at least a couple of AFCON games, opinions polarized again: would he be treated in England or should he receive treatment in Cote d’Ivoire while providing the team with much-needed moral support?

Several Egyptian former football stars were adamant Salah should remain with the team but in the end, he returned to Liverpool, which set the stage for a new heated debate: who decided that Salah return to Liverpool - the club or the country or Salah himself?

Now that Egypt are out of the tournament, most of the questions concerning Salah are moot but not before they evinced very strong opinions about the player, one way or the other.    

Missing person: There is still the mystery of why Vitoria did not include Hussein Al-Shehat, one of Egypt’s best players, on the team.

Vitoria did not give any explanation for Al-Shehat’s absence but a dust-up between Vitoria and Al-Shehat and two teammates over being bypassed for a World Cup qualifier was widely reported. While no star is above the law and disciplinary measures were certainly needed, Al-Shehat’s two teammates were chosen for AFCON; Al-Shehat was not. While the Ahly forward has a sometimes abrasive attitude, there is little doubt his silky skills as a winger or attacking midfielder were sorely missed. 

Lucky until they weren’t: Though Egypt were vanquished in the very early last 16, up until then lady luck was very much on their side. Good fortune abounded: Mohamed Salah’s late penalty kick which tied the game with Mozambique in the first game, ricocheted off the right post before going in; Egypt would have finished third in their Group B – then been forced to depend on other teams and scores to enter the knockouts – had Ghana not contrived to waste a 2-0 lead against Mozambique going into overtime in the deciding group three game; while there were monster meetings in the round of 16 – Nigeria vs Cameroon, Senegal vs Cote d’Ivoire and Morocco vs South Africa, Egypt had to contend with DRC, a full 34 places from Egypt in FIFA’s world rankings; fortunate scheduling gave Egypt 48 hours more rest than DRC; and had Egypt gotten by DRC it would have met Guinea – a 47-place difference, in the quarter-finals. A semi-final spot was tantalizingly awaiting but Egypt never showed up

No Gabaski heroics this time: Goalkeepers are not usually judged by how well they save penalties. But as Egypt and DR Congo went to the five spot kicks, the heroics of Mohamed Abu Gabal, also known as Gabaski, between the sticks two years ago were uppermost on the minds of many. In AFCON 2022 Gabaski almost won the title for Egypt, saving four spot kicks across three shoot-outs, as well as Sadio Mane’s first-half effort in the final against Senegal.

What a coincidence. In 2022 Gabaski came in as a substitute in the round of 16 for the injured Mohamed Al-Shinnawi. In Cote d’Ivoire, history repeated only half of itself. Gabaski again came in for the injured Al-Shinnawi, again in round 16, but against DRC he could not conjure up the magic of 2022 that made him one of the tournament’s biggest stars. He committed himself too early, leading to two soft shots right down the middle of the goal. And his strange insistence to constantly dive right was constantly wrong. Of the nine DRC shots, Gabaski did not save a single one, the one miss by Arthur Masuaku flying over the crossbar.

Gabaski’s penalty miss when he himself shot was the culmination of a very disappointing team run. It’s hard to believe that this embarrassing exit by Egypt came from a country that has won the AFCON title a record seven times and was gunning for No 8.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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