These are heady times for the Egyptian national team. They have qualified for their first World Cup appearance in nearly 30 years and their talisman, Mohamed Salah, has been setting the world on fire. He was voted the PFA Player of the Year, is on the precipice of breaking the Premier League’s goal record and is playing with his team, Liverpool, in the semi-finals of the biggest club competition in the world, the Champions League.
In addition, Egypt drew a favourable group for the group stages of the World Cup. Although no team will be a walkover, the likes of Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia appear less daunting than the superpowers of Germany, Spain, France, Argentina and Brazil.
But what can fans attribute such success to? Coaching and tactics? Manager Héctor Cúper is certainly a factor who, despite the funny glasses, is a serious coach with an impressive resume, his most significant achievement coming with Valencia in back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001.
He also took Internazionale to the semi-finals of the same competition in 2002/03. The lustre of these accomplishments may have waned by the time he arrived in Egypt a decade later, but there is no denying his resume outshines most of his recent predecessors in the position, bar Hassan Shehata.
Although fans have decried his defensive style, he, like the platonic ideal of the pragmatic, results-driven José Mourinho, has got the job done. The World Cup will test his team’s mettle, but after such a long wait Egypt are just happy to be there.
The brilliance of Salah has also eben a recent factor. Much has been written, and much more will be written, about Egypt’s shining star, and rightly so. Although it started as a tongue-in-cheek jest of jocular Liverpudlians and sardonic Egyptians, each game he plays this year makes the moniker ‘Egyptian Messi’ seem just a little less ridiculous. Heading into the World Cup, perhaps only Cristiano Ronaldo is in better form.
Read | The rise of Mohamed Salah from four-hour bus journeys to a career spent proving his critics wrong
Most fortuitously for the Pharaohs, Salah’s form for his club is matched by his form for the national team. His ever-growing talent is paired with a dutiful dedication to the side that would make any Egyptian proud. He knows they, and the whole of the football-mad country, are relying on him, and he relishes it.
Perhaps the greatest example remains his unflappable burying of the penalty needed to send Egypt to the finals. His importance to the side is immeasurable. Without him, the defensive setup of Cúper becomes a straightjacket, tightening with every well placed Mohamed Elneny backpass. But is that a bit too harsh on Cúper and his team? As we have seen, the volume of Jürgen Klopp’s heavy-metal football goes down two decibels when anyone deputizes the man from Gharbia.
Luck, it seems, has also played its p[art in Egypt’s resurgence. This factor gets overlooked in most analyses because it’s uncomfortably unquantifiable. It is easier to say it was the tactics, the talent, the fighting spirit and the statistical indicators than to credit Lady Luck. But for a game where one goal can make a world of difference, luck is bound to rear its troublesome head.
In the case of Egypt, it may be that they got a little lucky – and that’s absolutely fine. Having watched for years hoping for a World Cup trip, it has been astounding how one of Africa’s big guns has missed out on the biggest prize. They would win the Africa Cup of Nations and then blow the World Cup qualifying in one way or another. Some attributed this to a mental deficiency, but that seems to be the claim of fans and pundits hard done by in an especially difficult qualifying region.
Each of these played a role, no doubt, in Egypt’s ascent but the decisive reason is that from top to bottom this is the most battled-tested roster the nation has had in recent memory. The term golden generation gets thrown around when a long-suffering squad makes a jump in level, but I don’t think that is the case here.
I would argue that this is not even the best Egyptian team most fans have seen in their lifetimes. That would be the squad that won three straight Africa Cup of Nations between 2006 and 2010 carried by the likes of Ahmad Hassan, Mohamed Aboutrika, Wael Gomaa, and Essam El-Hadary. No, they are not a golden generation, but they are the readiest to play on the big stage.
Read | Essam El-Hadary: Egypt’s 44-year-old goalkeeper looking ahead to Russia 2018
To find out why we must return to Egypt’s star man. As part of the myth-making process for Salah, people have started to settle on a key part of his origin story. It begins with the Port Said riot. After an acrimonious match between Cairo giants Al Ahly and Port Said-based Al-Masry, tensions erupted into violence.
Al Ahly players and coaches were pelted with projectiles and assaulted by the Al-Masry fans, but the worst of it was aimed at the Al Ahly supporters, the Ahlawy. Armed with stones and knives, the Al-Masry fans set upon the Ahlawy. The skirmishes escalated to murderous attacks and were amplified by the police, who provided no protection for the fans and even refused to open the gates to allow them to escape. In total, 74 died and 500 were injured.
The greatest disaster in Egyptian football history led to the retirements of several prominent Al Ahly players and the cancellation of the Egyptian Premier League season. In the aftermath, the Egyptian Football Association schedule a friendly between FC Basel and the under-23 Egyptian squad to keep levels up in lieu of a league. It was in this match that the Swiss side’s vague interest in Salah blossomed into a real pursuit and they eventually signed him up. So began his journey.
But it’s not just Salah who made the trek abroad after the demise of the league. A host of players sought greener pastures immediately after the lost season including Elneny, Ahmed Fathy, Marwan Mohsen and Kahraba. This expedition was notable for its scale.
Since Hussein Hegazi joined Dulwich Hamlet in 1911, there have been Egyptians who played abroad with varying success. In fact, the post-Port Said expeditionary force joined a few players like Ahmad Hegazi, Ahmad Elmohamady and Ahmad Hassan who were already plying their trades abroad. But never before had Egyptian footballers ventured abroad in such numbers. Moreover, the Port Said tragedy inaugurated a change in Egyptian public opinion with regards to playing abroad that has only been bolstered by the success of Salah, Elneny and the like.
What was notable about the leading lights of Egypt’s national team in the years of the three straight Africa Cup wins – Aboutrika, Gomaa, Emad Moeteab – is that they all played domestically and showed little desire to go abroad. Those that did, like Mohamed Zidan, Mido, Hossam Ghaly and Amr Zaki, had tenures ranging from mediocre to forgettable.
Read | Mohamed Aboutrika: national icon, activist and one of Africa’s greatest players
Zidan’s time abroad, like his time with Egypt, was marred by injury, although he did have a relatively successful run under Klopp at Dortmund. The other three encountered more personal problems than glory.
The only exception to this trend was Ahmed Hassan, Egypt’s, and the world’s, most capped player. The Egyptian Falcon did well in his time in Turkey playing for Kocaelispor, Denizlispor, Gençlerbirliği and Beşiktaş, and in Belgium for Anderlecht. The only negative that could be said about his tenure abroad was that he never played for one of the global football elites. Regardless, one success does not a team make.
Before Port Said, playing abroad was seen, at best, with bemused disinterest, and at worst as abandoning your country. This made sense to a degree. It’s hard for Egyptians not have an insular view of their domestic game. That is not to say they believed their league was as good as LaLiga or the Premier League. No, simply that those leagues didn’t really matter to Egyptians.
Football culture is long and storied in Egypt. It has one of the most successful clubs in the world in Al Ahly, and their derby with Zamalek is probably one of the most intense on the planet. What more could an Egyptian footballer ask for than to play for one of these mammoth clubs, win the league and do well with the national team? This was surely better than playing in a relegation scrap in a foreign league.
The problem was, like many countries where players pick the comfort of the domestic league over the challenges of the very best, that the national team’s results on the biggest stages suffered. Having most of your players playing domestically created a cohesive national side, but one that consistently came up short. The stark differences in results in the Africa Cup of Nations versus World Cup qualifying were emblematic of this reality.
The cohesive squad built on the pillars of Al Ahly and Zamalek was well suited for the Africa Cup of Nations, where Egypt fielded a full-strength, African-based side against teams relying on European-based players with various levels of commitment to a tournament that happened in the middle of their club seasons. In World Cup qualifying, on the other hand, it was the African teams with players steeled at the highest European levels – the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria and Nigeria – that routinely qualified.
The insular view, tied heavily to Egyptian pride, has not disappeared, but it has soften since Port Said. Now, any Egyptian player worth his salt wants to give it a serious shot abroad. The best example is probably Ramadan Sobhi. Egypt’s next big thing left Al Ahly at the age of 19 to go to Stoke City. For all Stoke’s charm, it is not a place many Egyptians players dream of. But there he is, even if he’s struggled for playing time and the club itself has been fighting relegation all year.
Read | The Orwellian world of Egyptian football: state interference, fan-less clubs and unbridled passion
Some may decry this trend as another example of Egyptians favouring the foreign over their heritage, but going abroad to learn and grow is as old as modern Egypt itself. A significant part of the reform agenda of Muhammad Ali, who ruled the nation from 1805 to 1848 and is seen as the first ruler of modern Egypt, were intellectual expeditions – ba’that in Arabic – where he sent students abroad to study and learn the latest Europe had to offer.
Men who built Egypt, like Rifa al-Tahawi, Ali Mubarak and Hammad Abd al-Ati, received their finishing schools in Europe only to return and enrich Egypt. That trend continued until the 1960s and helped foster some of Egypt’s greatest minds, like Taha Hussein. It was only in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his powerful message of Pan-Arabism that going abroad started to take on a negative connotation. This thinking, of course, permeated opinions on Egypt’s greatest athletic venture, football.
So the athletic ba’that of Salah, Elneny and the rest is not a degradation of Egyptian identity but a callback to an important part of Egyptian history. They also are the product of Egypt’s tumultuous recent history. The Port Said disaster came in the shadow of the 2011 Uprisings, where the supporters of Al Ahly and Zamalek played an outsized role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. It is probably not a coincidence that it was the Ahlawy who suffered the brunt of the casualties in Port Said.
Unlike other results of the January Uprisings, however, this trend appears to be unquestionably positive. Egypt’s national team will be playing on the world’s biggest stage for the first time in nearly 30 years and its centrepiece is probably the third best player in the world right now.
This distinctively Egyptian trend bodes well for the future of the Pharaohs. With each Salah goal, Elneny pass and Hegazy tackle, the allure of the football ba’that becomes stronger. It now appears completely outmoded that the best Egyptians wouldn’t try to test themselves abroad.
This should excite every supporter. A steady diet of football expeditions offers the possibility of Egypt taking its place as the kings of African football once again. That is an enticing possibility for a football-obsessed country in need of some hope.
By Omar Foda @ElG0rn