Just as El-Gohari was in 1990, Egypt's Cuper remains loyal to defence

Hatem Maher , Thursday 14 Jun 2018,
Egypt’s legendary coach Mahmoud El-Gohary (L) and Egypt Argentinean coach Hector Cuper (R) (Photo: Ahram Online archive)

Those who believe that defence wins titles are hardly distracted by the amount of criticism they usually face. This is the case with Egypt coach Hector Cuper, who remains loyal to his efficient defensive strategies ahead of the World Cup.

The last time Egypt played at the World Cup, 28 years ago in Italy, another canny defensive-minded coach was in charge, with the late Mahmoud El-Gohari drawing mixed reviews after the team bowed out at the group stage.

El-Gohari, an iconic figure in the football-mad country, belied an attacking identity of the previous generation, with Egypt putting men behind the ball to hold then European champions the Netherlands to a stunning 1-1 draw before settling for a bore 0-0 stalemate with Ireland and losing 1-0 to England.

A watertight backline ensured Egypt had avoided any embarrassment on their first World Cup appearance since 1990. But it did not go down well with many, including then Ireland manager Jack Charlton.

"The Egyptians had come not to play a match," he said at the time.

"They never created a chance. I didn't like anything about the game, the way the Egyptians played nor their time-wasting tactics."

El-Gohari said Egypt "earned the respect of the whole world" but many fans still believed the team could have caused an upset and advanced to the knockout stage had the coach, nicknamed The General, adopted bolder strategies.

Being realistic

Cuper’s mindset is similar to Gohari’s and many Egyptian football enthusiasts are skeptical the Argentinean can deliver the kind of “beautiful football” they crave as the team make only their third World Cup appearance in history.

Egypt were truly pretty to watch under Hassan Shehata, who led them to an unprecedented hat-trick of African Nations Cup titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Boasting an embarrassment of riches, especially upfront, Egypt got the better of most of Africa’s heavyweights including the Ivory Coast and Cameroon, producing vivid attacking displays in the process as they bossed the continent for four years.

But for all their flair, a World Cup qualification never materialized. A defensive blunder from Abdel-Zaher El-Saqqa allowed Algeria to snatch a 1-0 win in a World Cup qualifying playoff in late 2009, denying Egypt a place at the 2010 South Africa finals in a bitter manner.

Egypt also went close to reaching the 2014 World Cup, only to fall at the last hurdle for a second straight time despite enjoying a fine qualifying run.

In the first-leg of another playoff, this time against Ghana at their fearsome Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi, then Egypt coach Bob Bradley inexplicably hit an all-out attack button.

The end result was catastrophic - Bradley’s shambolic defence conceded six goals as Ghana’s masterclass gave the hapless Pharaohs a cruel and unforgettable footballing lesson.

Cuper is just being realistic and it seems it’s worth it.

He set about arranging his ranks at the back, closing down spaces and ensuring his towering central defenders do not make any inroads upfield so that they avoid being caught out in any swift breakaways our outpaced by speedy strikers.

A more disciplined Egypt side under Cuper’s stewardship reached the Nations Cup final in Gabon last year, on their first appearance in the biennial showpiece since 2010, and ended a 28-year wait for a World Cup qualification after conceding only five goals in eight matches.

“The first thing we noticed on arrival was that the team lacked some dependability in terms of defensive duties,” Cuper said in an interview with FIFA.com.

“Modern football requires you to play the game well, which means keeping possession of the ball and constantly passing and moving. However, in football you also have to defend well, and it was that aspect that characterised the national team.

“I knew we’d score at least once, and sometimes more than once, against teams, but the intention was to try not to concede goals, and it worked out. Perhaps if it hadn’t, we’d have been criticised for being ‘too defensive, etc, etc’.

“But the reality was the team hadn’t been to a World Cup for 28 years. Maybe it’s not dazzling football, but we’re a humble, hardworking and disciplined team that pays attention to the small details that decide games.”

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


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