Egyptians gripped by World Cup fever, pinning hopes on Mohamed Salah

In Egypt, football is more than just a sport and popular national teams have never been able to escape politics.
Sunday 27/05/2018
High hopes. A Cairo open-air cafe displays a mural by Egyptian artist Ahmed Fathy (C) showing Liverpool’s Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah.     (AFP)
High hopes. A Cairo open-air cafe displays a mural by Egyptian artist Ahmed Fathy (C) showing Liverpool’s Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Salah.

CAIRO - Egypt is in the grip of FIFA World Cup fever and many people in the country hope the Pharaohs, as the men’s national team is known, will make it into the knockout stage.

The Egyptian Football Association has chosen a provisional team and the final roster is to be named June 4, said Ehab Lahita, administrative manager of the team. Lahita, who serves under manager Hector Cuper, said the Egyptian delegation would include 23 players, the coaches and their assistants, the medical team and members of the country’s football federation.

“This is a very important competition and everybody in the team has the resolve required for an achievement,” Lahita said. “We promise to do everything possible to make the Egyptian public happy.”

This is the first time that Egypt has qualified for the world’s top football event since its appearance at Italy in 1990. Since then, Egyptian footballers were unable to make the grade during World Cup qualification campaigns, even as the team won five African Cup of Nations titles in the same period.

The only other time Egypt qualified for the World Cup was in 1934 — the second time the tournament took place. The Pharaohs are yet to win a World Cup match.

Egypt has scored a total of three goals in its previous four World Cup matches. It is hoped that Mohamed Salah, coming off a record-setting 32 goals during Premier League play for Liverpool — and 43 across all competitions — will increase Egypt’s scoring opportunities.

He will get support from wingers Mohamed Trezeguet and Kahraba.  Defender Ahmed Hegazi enjoyed a good debut season in the Premier League, even though his West Brom side was relegated. Veteran goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, if he makes the final squad, could become the oldest player to feature at a World Cup at age 45.

Egypt has a strong squad and all eyes are on Salah and his ability to score goals. There have, however, been rumblings about Cuper’s defensive style, even after Egypt finished second in the 2017 African Cup of Nations.

Millions of Egyptians took to the streets last October 8 to celebrate the country’s qualification for the World Cup, after Salah scored on a penalty in the final minutes of the match to secure victory over Congo. Many are anticipating similar scenes of celebration with Egypt facing off against hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay in Group A.

“We have a big chance to score major victories in the competition because we have a strong team that contains very talented and dedicated players,” said sports commentator Ehab al-Khatib. “Every member of the general public will be watching the matches closely.”

Egyptian state television has bought the broadcast rights of Egypt’s World Cup matches. This should mean football fans will not have to worry about choosing between Qatari and Israeli broadcasts to watch the games, as they had to do so in previous World Cups.

However, relatively few Egyptians tend to stay at home to watch the matches, most preferring to enjoy them as part of a communal experience. During the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, it seemed all of Egypt was out on the streets, watching the matches at coffee shops or in public squares on gigantic screens or at sports and youth centres.

When the World Cup starts, similar screens will be provided for the public to watch the matches and support the national team, Youth and Sports Minister Khaled Abdel Aziz said.

“The public will be able to watch the matches on squares and at youth centres,” Abdel Aziz said. “We want to make everybody feel that the tournament is not held far away from home.”

In Egypt, football is more than just a sport. Popular national teams have never been able to escape politics. Former President Hosni Mubarak used to receive the national football teams at the presidential palace, attend matches and telephone the manager to receive updates.

Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, attended training of national teams, made friends with the players and travelled to matches outside Egypt.

The current Egyptian administration also seems more than ready to offer its support to the Pharaohs. When the Egyptian Football Association allowed a local telecommunication company to use Salah’s image without his consent, this placed the Egyptian winger in trouble with his own sponsors, with the issue only being resolved after an intervention from the president.

When a local communications company illegally used Salah’s photo in one of its advertisement in April, the presidency instructed the football association to pay $5.6 million for the fine that had been issued against Salah over breach of image rights.

Egypt has arranged a series of friendlies ahead of the World Cup to fine-tune tactics and final selection. The team drew 1-1 with Kuwait on May 25, before travelling to Italy for a game June 1 against Colombia and finally to Belgium where they will face a strong Belgian team

on June 6.

The national team is to return to Egypt June 8. The following day, the players are to attend a major celebration at Cairo Stadium that includes an estimated 100,000 fans before travelling to Russia on June 10.

“Everybody is hoping that the team will perform well in the competition and have good results,” Khatib said. “I am full of confidence that our players will make wonderful surprises.”

Egypt goes against Uruguay on June 15 in its World Cup opener. Other Group A games have the Pharaohs playing Russia on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25.