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Losing is not an option
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

In AFCON 2019, Egypt is situated in Group A. It was also in Group A in last year's World Cup in Russia. It's just a coincidence and hopefully does not portend anything more.
Egypt was rotten in Russia, ending with zero points from three games, finishing at the bottom of the group and 31 out of the 32 countries.
To avoid a similar fate in AFCON, Egypt hired a new coach. To not avoid a similar fate, eight of the starters in Russia are starters in AFCON, 13 altogether.
It's odd that a completely different coach picked almost the exact same players. The reason is probably the dearth of good players in Egypt these days. This is not one of the country's better footballing generations.
Consequently, the standard of play remains sub-par, as evidenced by a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in a friendly in March. Egypt looked toothless in Asaba, showing much of the weaknesses that led to the collapse in Russia.
So, too, the 1-0 friendly tepid win against Tanzania last Thursday evinced a side that will have big problems in AFCON with teams much stronger.
This past Sunday, however, in the last of the friendlies, Egypt pulled its socks up against a disciplined Guinea. In the 3-1 win, Marwan Mohsen unloaded a world-class cracker, Mahmoud Trezeguet was a marauder in the second half and superstar Mohamed Salah showed sublimity with every touch of the ball, assisting in two goals.
The days of the hapless Hector Cuper whose ponderous, defensive tactics proved fatal in Russia, should be banished. To get close to a title, a team must be a shape-shifter on both ends. A team as predictable and monotonous as Egypt will have to let its imagination run a bit wild.
The new man tasked with bringing imagination and the AFCON to Egypt, Javier Aguirre, had, when he took over in August last year, initially decided to use only new blood to rebuild the team after the debacle in Russia, scratching out any player over 30. That was when AFCON was supposed to be staged in Cameroon.
When Cameroon was determined to be not ready and Egypt was chosen to host instead, Aguirre did a U-turn, calling up four senior citizens: midfielders Abdallah Al-Said, 33 and Walid Suleiman, 34, defender Ahmed Al-Mohamadi, 31, and forward Ahmed Ali, 33.
It was a sound decision and Aguirre should be applauded for correcting what was surely a wrong. Experienced players are needed everywhere, at any time, at home or abroad. They provide the calming influence on their younger teammates, the ones who keep their heads and stay cool when a game is on the line. So you have to ask: was Aguirre not that interested in winning AFCON when it was supposed to be played in Cameroon but became very interested when the venue was changed to Egypt?
What was he thinking? Was he thinking? As a coach, Aguirre took Mexico to two World Cups so he should know what he's doing. But the very idea that he was willing to forfeit the chance at an AFCON cup simply because the championship was not being played in Egypt should raise eyebrows.
Still, it's a good thing Aguirre ultimately saw the light. Most likely, Al-Mohamadi will captain the team. Although he did not figure in the World Cup outright, the right back helped pull Aston Villa back to the bright lights of the Premier League.
Along with Ahmed Al-Nenni of Arsenal, Al-Said will be the lynchpin of the midfield and should make up for the attacking shortcomings of their partner Tarek Hamed who has never passed, and might not ever pass, a ball that resulted in a goal.
Ali is the Egyptian league's top scorer this year and his eye for goal should help a front-line that besides Salah, has exceptional difficulty in finding the net.
What to do with Salah will be Aguirre's biggest challenge. He is only one of 11 players on the team but his teammates will look to him to do everything except do the dishes.
Do you give Salah the ball and ask him to run 70 metres or do you kick the ball downfield 70 metres and ask him to go get it? Unless football suddenly became a one-man army, that's not the way to win football games. Football is a team sport and needs a team effort. Never was the sport a one-man show, no matter the superstar a team possesses.
Al-Sisi supports the Pharaohs before AFCON
You can't blame the team for relying so much on Salah who, despite an underwhelming performance with Liverpool this year as opposed to last season, is still considered one of the world's best and has an even chance, depending on what happens in the AFCON, of winning the Ballon d'Or as the world's best.
Salah is fresh from a Champions League victory but let's face it: in Egypt he does not have the same partners as Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino in Liverpool. Here he must work with Mohsen and Ahmed Kouka, who are, well, Mohsen and Ahmed Kouka. Mohsen became a meme sensation while in Russia as crossed balls kept fruitlessly hitting him in the head. Kouka is doing well enough in Greece, scoring 15 goals in all competitions including 11 in the Greek league but flatters to deceive with Egypt, scoring only five goals in 21 internationals.
No team in any championship can win without a solid defence. The introduction of Mahmoud Alaa, who scores as many goals as he blocks, or newcomer Baher Al-Mohamadi, could complement Ahmed Hegazi, a giant of a man as the centre back. However, in his two years in England, Hegazi has not played with anybody better than West Brom which currently play in the Championship, the second tier of English football.
The important thing for Egypt is not to play the sort of defence that Cuper engrained in it. Defence does not mean parking the bus. It means preventing a goal, then quickly going the other way, with your defenders, to get a goal. That system needs total football, the Dutch formation that Egypt is alien to. To remedy a bit of that problem, Aguirre has Trezeguet, a feisty midfielder who in Russia was one of the few Egyptian players who had the guts to play with the ball in front of him, not behind him.
The three goalkeepers all seem to be equal, with Mohamed Al-Shennawi perhaps given the nod because of his World Cup experience.
All the players wanted the chance to show what they can do in Egypt's last two friendlies. But playing just three friendlies, two of them the week before AFCON begins, is hardly enough for the team to gel; at least double that number would have been more like it.
There is also the question of who to play against in these limbering-up exercises. Do you play teams as good as or better than you — taking the chance that you might lose — in order that you shore up your weaknesses, or play weak teams to ensure wins to serve as a morale booster? Nigeria aside, Aguirre took the easy way out, opting to meet Tanzania and a slightly better Guinea — not exactly world beaters — for wins that could paint a false picture of the true standard of his team.
In one recent friendly, Tunisia decided to find out how good, or bad, it really is, taking on Croatia, the World Cup finalists last year. Not only was Tunisia unafraid to discover its true self but it beat Croatia 2-1.
The AFCON is not the World Cup. It is of a lower calibre and the sudden increase of teams from 16 to 24 has definitely diluted the field. The AFCON format this year makes reaching the last 16 easier than taking candy from a baby (although try taking candy from a baby). All you have to do is finish in the top two of your group, and, if that doesn't work, be among the next best four teams in the standings. Pitted along with Uganda, Zimbabwe and DR Congo, Egypt would have to miss the team bus to miss the group stage.
But starting from the round of 16, you never know. That's when the knockouts begin, and as we all know, anything can happen in one game.
What we do know is that this is Egypt's first tournament since the Russian debacle, which should be motivation enough to win the AFCON.
We also know that Egypt reached the final of the 2017 edition before losing 2-1 to Cameroon. So Egypt was very close to getting its name etched on the trophy the last time around.
We know the crowds will be loud, fevered and very vocal, and that the family fans of the 2006 AFCON hosted by Egypt will return, ready for a day of boisterous national celebration should their country lift the cup.
And we know that the AFCON cup can't put food on the table for tens of millions of people — Egyptians love to say this popular refrain — but for at least one day or perhaps a few minutes, they can stop to appreciate an AFCON victory. They could stop and smell the roses.
The truth is that the only sure thing about the AFCON is its uncertainty. And that goes for what Egypt will do. It's anyone's guess as to which version of Egypt will actually show up on the field. The Egypt that has heart, that absolutely refuses to quit, that will come out of its defensive shell, or the Egypt that wants to slip into something more comfortable — like a coma?
We're about to find out.


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