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Why Egypt failed miserably in the 2018 World Cup
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 06 - 2018

Playing in only their third World Cup and first in 28 years it was Egypt's chance to shine on football's biggest stage. Instead, Egypt were one of the big flops in the tournament, failing to make it to the second round even before the third group game was played. Before the tournament began, the team constantly insisted they would make it to the round of 16. They never got close. Successive losses to Uruguay and Russia stunned the squad and the nation which up until today is still shaking its head.
What went so terribly wrong? As brief as Egypt's tenure in Russia was, the list of explanations for the debacle is long.
You can't win if you don't score. That pretty much sums up what Egypt didn't do in Russia. Hector Cuper, the extra cautious Argentinian coach, was consumed with playing defensive football. Our players felt comfortable passing the ball among themselves sideways in their own end of the field. But once they started to move forward, paralysis would set in. They were too hesitant, too timid to go all the way downfield for fear of losing the ball and being caught out of position in case of a counterattack. It was as if they were defying gravity, as if some giant magnet kept pulling them back. It was like trying to drive a car with the handbrakes up. Good luck with that.
We have seen players in this World Cup running with wings for feet, trying as quickly as possible to reach the opposing goal in the hopes of scoring. Not so Egypt. The players were shackled in quicksand, averse to straying too far away from their own goal.
While this coy approach met with relative success against African opposition, helping Cuper and the team reach the final of last year's Africa Cup of Nations and qualifying for the World Cup, it backfired badly once in the World Cup.
In the 1-0 loss against Uruguay, TV cameras hardly caught a glimpse of their goalkeeper. So few times did Fernando Muslera see the ball that we don't know what he looks like. On the other end, if Luis Suarez had not had such a horrendous off day and goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Shennawi not had such a remarkable day, Egypt would have been buried long before Jose Gimenez's last-minute killer goal.
As for Russia's goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev, he faced only one shot against Egypt, Mohamed Salah's penalty. Akinfeev was not forced into one save in open play. Only the lively left wing play of the enterprising Mahmoud Trezeguet gave Egypt some attacking bite. Sort of.
Basically, Egypt's offense was missing in action. Egypt did not strike fear in their opponents because their opponents had nothing to be afraid of. All the Egyptians wanted to do was frustrate their opponents, not inspire themselves.
Cuper took the easy way out. The hardest thing to do in football is create chances. It's easier to play defence than offence. It's easier to bring something down than put something up.
Nobody asked Cuper to deploy the seldom seen 0-0-10 formation but many times it looked like it was the other way around. And football has certainly never seen a coach who plays the exact same way whether he's winning, tying or losing.
It would have been great to see Egypt get the ball downfield with purpose. But like we have said before: this team was made to not win, certainly not against better opposition. Maybe a draw here and there but that was never going to amass the points needed to go to the knockout stage.
Cuper and company also learned a very brutal early World Cup lesson the hard way: you can't depend on just one player. Egypt with an injured Salah, who could barely run against the Russians because of his shoulder injury, was like playing with only 10 men.
Egypt vs Saudi Arabia (photo: Osama Abdel-Nabi)
Salah was injured three weeks before the World Cup began, not enough time for a Plan B. But a good coach must have contingency plans in case of emergencies, and this was an emergency. Salah is as important to Egypt as Cristiano Ronaldo is to Portugal and Lionel Messi to Argentina. Without them, they are half the team they are.
No player can replace Salah, so how about two players? It was ludicrous for Cuper to pick just one forward for the World Cup, Marawan Mohsen, whose cumulative attacking results amounted to balls bouncing off his head and out the field.
It was also highly naïve of Cuper to believe his midfield, composed of Tarek Hamid who leans on playing defense, and Abdullah Said who was slow in body and mind, would pick up the slack.
Cuper also blindly picked almost all the players who play in Europe with very little regard for the locals. But in the friendlies in the build-up to the World Cup it quickly became clear that the Made in Egypt group were better than several of those plying their wares abroad. Ramadan Sobhi, Sam Morsi, Ali Gabr and to an extent Amr Warda were of lesser calibre than their teammates on home territory. Why Cuper overlooked marksmen Mo'men Zakaria, Abdullah Al-Shehhat and Ahmed Gomaa remains a mystery, as did his refusal to employ the silky Shikabala in the first two games.
Cuper's insistence that Gabr play, even though he has not played a single game for his English club West Bromwich since his transfer in January, was another of those unknowns which defy explanation. All of football knows that no matter how hard a player trains, there is no substitute for actual playing time. It was Gabr who was caught flat-footed when Artem Dzybula chested the ball down and went around the defender to score a beauty for Russia's third goal. At this level of football, you simply cannot make a big mistake, even if only on one or two occasions, and expect to go unpunished. Cuper had at his disposal Ahly's Saad Samir who might not be as good as Gabr and does not have his experience, but is at least a regular in his club.
If there is one thing that this World Cup taught us, it's that you shouldn't believe FIFA's world ranking system. If we go by FIFA, Egypt's Group A was the weakest of the eight groups. It involved the teams ranked 70th in the world (Russia), 67th (Saudi Arabia), 45th (Egypt) and 14th (Uruguay). Russia were expected to be one of the worst sides ever to host a World Cup. They came into the tournament as the lowest-ranked nation of the 32 teams. However, after two games -- a 5-0 drubbing of Saudi Arabia and a 3-1 victory over Egypt -- they had the best start of any host side in World Cup history. They coasted to the second round. They have been impressive with their discipline since many of their players come from military clubs. Most of all, they caught the world off guard, including Egypt. After they dismantled Saudi Arabia, it was obvious that the Russians were not the pushovers that Egypt though they were going to steamroll over. The initial hope of either beating or at least taking a point from Russia quickly evaporated. As much as Egypt's players tried to persuade themselves that it was Saudi Arabia that played poorly, and not Russia that played well, it appears that the super Russian debut had Egyptian boots quaking.
Egypt went into the World Cup with modest ambitions. There was never any aspiration to go high. Never played with flair. Never adventurous. They were too afraid to play because Cuper himself was too frightened, instilling in them his own anxieties. This, as the whole world was watching.
It would have been lovely to see Egypt do well in the 2018 World Cup, to show the world that this country does know something about how to play the game. We are, after all, a record seven-time champion of Africa and were the first Arab and African country to go to the World Cup, way back in 1934. Unfortunately, we did not do justice to ourselves. We did not show what we are made of. And so we must now lick our wounds, understand what went wrong and make the necessary corrections and, above all, acknowledge that we have a long way to go before catching up with the giants of the sport and even the not so giant countries that sped by us a long time ago as we remained stranded and indeed content with living in our past.
We must wait for the next opportunity. The World Cup comes along just once every four years -- although for Egypt it feels longer. We were supposed to put our best foot forward, not backward. We wanted to play well and win. Given we did not do that, we could have played well and lost or play badly and win. Egypt took a bit from here and bit from there. We played badly and lost.


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