Highly-successful coach Hassan Shehata is probably destined for a bitter exit should Egypt fail to beat South Africa in Cairo in a crucial African Cup of Nations qualifier on Sunday.
Shehata has masterminded a glorious seven-year era during which Egypt has proved Africa’s nearly invincible team with a series of breathtaking displays and results, overcoming the continent’s heavyweights with ease to win the Nations Cup three successive times.
They combined an attractive brand of football with some stunning results, crushing the likes of Ivory Coast and Cameroon with high score-lines and beating then world champions Italy 1-0 in a day to remember at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Although Shehata failed to help Egypt end their World Cup jinx, he is still widely regarded as the best coach in the country’s history, which boasts another great manager in Mahmoud Al-Gohary who was in charge of the Pharaohs when the national side made their last World Cup appearance in 1990.
But the once untouchable Shehata is now feeling unusual heat following Egypt’s disastrous start to their 2012 Nations Cup qualifying campaign as they could only collect one point from three games after drawing with Sierra Leone and losing to Niger and Group G leaders South Africa.
Egypt meet the Bafana Bafana on Sunday with no option but to claim all three points to keep alive their slim hopes of avoiding the unthinkable prospect of missing out on a tournament they won a record seven times.
Otherwise, Shehata is likely to surrender the post he has occupied since 2004.
“It’s a do-or-die match. The win will give us a glimmer of hope while a defeat will signal the end of that generation, which is the most successful in the history of the national team,” the 61-year-old said in an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida.
“We are in a critical position, but this is not the first time we face an uphill climb. We overcame many difficult situations, especially in the last World Cup qualifiers,” he added, referring to the 2009 dramatic comeback when Egypt atoned for a poor start to set up a one-off playoff with North African rivals Algeria, although they eventually lost 1-0 in a controversial and tense encounter in Sudan.
Shehata has come in for fierce criticism lately, with some football pundits questioning his tactical choices which they believe cost Egypt dearly against lesser opponents such as Sierra Leone and Niger.
He was also blamed for failing to pump new blood into a team that still relies on some ageing players, including inspirational playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika who has looked way past his prime recently.
Injuries to key players and Egypt’s January revolution have also contributed to what has the potential to become a free-fall unless drastic improvement is made in the coming crucial period.
Pressure also increased on Shehata for non-footballing reasons, when his support for ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak drew the ire of many and led to calls for his departure.
The former Zamalek icon has a tough task ahead of him to win over the ever-demanding supporters and assure them he can still oversee a rebuilding process and bring back the glory days.
But for now his future remains hanging by the thinnest of threads.
“I considered resigning from my post before, but I changed my mind because I still hope I can help Egypt reach the World Cup,” said Shehata, under whom Egypt qualified for the U-20 World Cup round of 16 in 2003.
“I believe the current crop and the new players are ambitious and eager to achieve that aim.
“But the corrupt media is still disrupting our work. I endured lots of hard times because of their unjustified attacks on me,” Shehata, who has barely accepted criticism since taking over the national team, added.
Shehata’s aim of pursuing his World Cup dream will largely depend on whether Egypt can win their remaining three Nations Cup qualifiers, starting with South Africa.
The seven-time African champions will also face Sierra Leone away from home in September before wrapping up their qualifying campaign at home to Niger a month later.