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What's a World Cup without Egypt playing Saudi Arabia?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 12 - 2017

Back in October, from the day Egypt knew it was going to next year's World Cup, the talk was who would it play against. Would the World Cup draw, held in Moscow on Friday night, be kind to Egypt or would the luck of the draw fatefully place it in a Group of Death?
The one country Egyptians were scared stiff of meeting was Germany, for obvious reasons. Germany has won the World Cup four times, one short of Brazil's record. It has earned second-place and third-place finishes four times each and one fourth-place finish. The team was present in 18 out of the 20 tournaments, and only once did not reach the quarter-finals. If you consider third place or better a winning campaign, then Germany has the best overall record in the history of the World Cup.
And Germany are the defending champions, having gotten that far after destroying the mighty Brazil in the Maracana 7-1, by far the biggest upset in World Cup annals.
In comparison, Egypt's accumulative World Cup record: two appearances, one tie, one point.
No wonder, when Egyptians were asked who they wanted to meet in Russia, the loud, unambiguous answer in unison was: “Anybody except Germany!” Give us Brazil, France, Spain, England, you name it, except those merciless machines called Germany.
Their wish was granted. Germany was sent far away, to Group F where they can do their damage to Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
In Group A, Egypt will instead be accompanied by Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.
A cursory look would suggest Russia and Uruguay to be Egypt's biggest hurdles. Russia is the host with the important home field advantage. And Uruguay is a South American power.
But it is Saudi Arabia that will keep Egyptians up all night until next June. Of all the 32 countries in the World Cup, it is the Kingdom, not Germany or anyone else, which Egypt did not want to meet.
This high anxiety is put down to the huge historical rivalry between these two leading lights in the Arab world – Saudi Arabia with its mega oil wealth and Egypt with its vast manpower, the might of its military and a pioneer of yesteryear, from politics to entertainment to football.
Like all goliaths vying for head honcho, the ties between these colossi has had its ups and downs. Last year saw a flare-up when Cairo returned to Riyadh two Red Sea islands that the Kingdom had granted Egypt with protectorate powers although many in Egypt considered the lands Egyptian territory.
At present, the two nations are bonded more than ever by their determined mission to wipe out Islamist terrorism they are suffering from. They are also allied against Qatar for that country's support for state terrorism.
On the field and in the group, Saudi Arabia is the only familiar face to Egypt, having met in six FIFA-sanctioned matches. For the record, Egypt won four games and drew once. But that one defeat to Saudi Arabia was the humiliating 5-1 loss in the group stage of the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup in Mexico. It was a defeat so devastating that Egypt's coach and entire football federation were fired even before they could land in Cairo Airport.
It's true that three Egyptian players were shown the red card in that game but Saudi Arabia was up 1-0 before the first Egyptian was gone and 2-0 after the second early shower. The ejections definitely had an effect but also served to prove a point: Egyptian players are overwrought when they play other Arab countries, especially those they feel they should beat.
It would be the last time Egypt and Saudi Arabia would meet in football. That tremendous defeat 18 years ago was apparently too overwhelming for Egypt to hold a repeat.
But they now have a rendezvous on 25 June. That would be the third and final group stage match, one that could decide who advances to the second round, one more reason why this clash of Arab titans will be watched so closely and why there is much trepidation among Egyptians about playing Saudi Arabia again. Another loss to Saudi Arabia would be shattering.
Before that, at the start of the group stage, Saudi Arabia will play Russia in the World Cup opener on 14 June.
Saudi Arabia against Russia in the opening game of the World Cup is a double-edged sword for the Kingdom. It is a big thrill to kick off the world's most watched sporting event by playing in its first game. The downside is that the Saudis will be playing the hosts on their home territory, in front of what is sure to be a packed Luzhniki Stadium of 81,000 spectators and a TV global audience in the billions. In that massive, daunting atmosphere, the Saudi players will have to have nerves of steel to be able to deal with the occasion and soak up all this tremendous pressure.
The day after will be Egypt's turn against Uruguay. In Uruguay, Egypt will have a real challenge on their hands. Only Brazil had a more solid performance in South American qualifying. Uruguay is a two-time winner of the World Cup and even though those titles were won when the World Cup was first born, they remain, along with Brazil and Argentina, the perennial top three soccer nations in South America. Uruguay's famous trio of Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Diego Godin is always a threat while their wheelchair-ridden coach Oscar Tabarez is Uruguay's tactician for his fourth World Cup, the third in a row.
Game No 2 against Russia will be easier for Egypt. On paper, Egypt should be able to beat Russia which, strangely enough, is the weakest team among the World Cup countries, ranked 65 in the world. At 31, Egypt has a big mathematical edge. They should manage to at least tie the game, even if Russia enjoys the home field advantage. Russia is no superpower in football, having never come close to winning a World Cup. Their biggest claim to fame was a semi-final berth at the 2008 European Championship. One of their best players, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, tends to make big gaffes in big games.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia will have its hands full against Uruguay.
Which takes us to the all-important third game. Uruguay should manage to beat Russia and will probably finish first in Group A, leaving the remaining three scrambling for second place and a trip to the second round.
Egypt versus Saudi Arabia is anybody's game; it could go either way. The Kingdom has more World Cup history, now making its fifth appearance, including a round of 16 appearance in its first try.
Their key player, Mohamed Al-Sahlawi, is a 30-year-old striker who was instrumental in helping the Saudis reach the tournament with 16 goals in qualifying.
Egypt, too, has a history and pedigree players. Egypt was the first Arab and African country to go to the World Cup, 1934. In 1990, they did admirably well, drawing 1-1 with then European champions Holland and tying Ireland before succumbing to England 1-0.
And Egypt boasts Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah who, as of writing, implausibly leads the Premier League with 12 goals from 16 matches.
Egypt is also stable at the helm. Argentinean boss Hector Cuper has been with the team for two years, taking them to their first World Cup in 28 years, plus a finals appearance in the Africa Cup of Nations. Though Cuper has been strongly criticised for overly cautious play, he has made up for unimaginative football with results.
The Kingdom, though, must quickly get used to its new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi who was named only last week for the job. Recent losses in friendlies to Portugal and Bulgaria mean Pizzi has his work cut out for him.
Head-to-head, Egypt is vastly superior, save for that dreadful day in Mexico.
On the field, the hope is that the enduring ties between these two giant Muslim Arab nations will extend to a healthy rivalry in which it will not matter who wins.
But that's in La La Land. Down on Soccer Land, Egyptians would die if Saudi Arabia beats them again. There is no shame in losing to Germany, even if it's a rout. Everybody loses to Germany. But a defeat to Saudi Arabia, in a World Cup no less, would be so seismic in Egypt that it would register a 10+ on the Richter scale. There are no records of anything that size but if that days happens, there will be.
A loss would be so horrific that the next time, Egyptians will pray to play Germany.

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