The Fall of the Pharaohs

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Photo Credit: FIFA.com

As the final minutes counted down in their last match at World Cup 2018 what was once a promising embark towards World Cup glory for Egypt whimpered towards a worrisome, uncertain future.  

When they qualified back on October 8th of 2017 there was waves of optimism surrounding this team. They had soundly qualified from a somewhat difficult World Cup qualifying group featuring perennial contenders, Ghana, amongst the teams they qualified ahead of.  They had one of the best goal scorers in the world in Mohamed Salah, who menaced opposing lines with his speed and skill that led to him scoring 44 goals across all competitions for Liverpool. They had, for a small amount of time, united a fractious nation in pure joy.  Now as the Egyptian team leaves Russia after three defeats, a superstar questioning whether he will play for the national team again, and a manager relieved of his duties, its a wonder: What happened on the road to Russia to bring everything down for the Pharaohs?

When Mohamed Salah was judo-tackled during the UEFA Champions League final, as tears slide down his cheeks, injured in one of the highlights of his young career, you could almost feel a sense of fatalism in Egypt’s chances at the World Cup.  Salah had been absolutely brilliant for Egypt in World Cup qualifications, scoring five of Egypt’s eight goals to reserve their spot in Russia. When Salah was felled in Kiev during the Champions League final it set off panic alarms for all Egyptian fans.  After reports came out that Salah’s shoulder injury would be a 3-4 week injury and that he would be able to be back for country in time to play in Russia, fears were alleviated.

As Egypt started their run of friendlies heading into the World Cup looking fruitless against Belgium and Colombia and only managing one goal against Kuwait, pressure began ramping up on Salah’s return to act as a savior for this team.  When their World Cup opener against Uruguay came around, manager Hector Cuper decided to rest a medically cleared Salah and once again Egypt was defeated with nothing to show on the scoreboard, building more and more pressure on a Mohamed Salah return to being the savior of the Egyptian attack.

When Salah took the field on June 19th against Russia, not only did he have to go up against the host country but he had to go up against expectations. The hope was that he would be the same exact pioneering, creative player he was during World Cup qualifying, even after nearly a month off from actually gameplay.  In the first half of play, as Salah’s normally terrific first touch seemed off after a month away from football, you could almost see the Egyptian side deflate as the savior they were expecting could not live up to the unfair expectations they needed from him. As Russia was able to put the first goal of the match on the board after an own goal from Egypt’s Ahmed Fathy, you could see the Egyptian fragile confidence completely fail.  

When Salah fell that day in Kiev so did Egypt’s inability to see another way of play other than waiting for Salah to come back.  Egypt was able to get through qualification by playing with a conservative, defensive minded approach but when he went down with injury, they didn’t seem to have a Plan B.  They tried to rely on attacking players like Trezeguet and Kahraba and others to attack and create moments of brilliance the way Salah could but they lacked the ability to do so. As the lead-up friendlies showed, they are pretty toothless without Salah and rather than adjust their approach, they essentially doubled down and pinned their hopes on Salah’s return.  There was no pivot to being a more positive, attack minded side. Since Salah’s injury, against major opponents (Russia, Belgium, Colombia, Uruguay), Egypt managed just nine shots on goal total. Cuper managed Egypt to not lose by much rather than actually going for goals. When Salah came back and couldn’t match the unfair burden put on him after missing a month’s time, Cuper only ensured that Egypt wouldn’t incur a humiliating loss but never any hopes of a win.

As the final whistle blew in Egypt’s last match in Russia, a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, Salah’s disappointment of play on the pitch was only matched by his disappointment in the mismanagement off the pitch by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). The EFA took one of the most charismatic, likable soccer stars in the world and embroiled him in controversy from the moment the Pharaoh’s arrived in Russia.  On June 10th, 5 days prior to their opening match, The EFA arranged a photo op with Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov, is the leader of Chechnya,the semi-autonomous region in Russia, who has been criticized around the world for his treatment of women, homosexuals and torture of dissidents.  Kadyrov has been attempting to make inroads to regimes in the Middle East and the EFA was all too happy to oblige providing legitimacy to his rule by basing the Egyptian squad in the region, even though logistically it made no sense (Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is about 1100 miles from the location of their opening match).

Once the controversy started to ramp up by media outlets around the world (most if not all were giving the benefit of the doubt to Salah), the furor disappointed and angered Salah.  During his time in England, Salah has been devoutly apolitical and has been beloved in Egypt for being this way. By eschewing any political discussion/commentary, Salah has been serving as unifying force in Egypt.  The fact that the EFA forced Salah into making a political stance by meeting with Kadyrov, angered Salah to the point that he has openly questioned his commitment to the Egyptian National team. Players oftentimes use the national platform of the World Cup to make a political statement or bring light to issues that don’t see the public eye, but Salah wanted to maintain apolitical to give the people of Egypt an escape from the political turmoil they deal with on a daily basis.  The EFA took that away from him.

What began with a penalty kick in Alexandria last October that brought unfound joy to a nation, to a flameout at the World Cup in Russia, The Egyptian National team has been on a harrowing journey.  What began as a promising journey for a team that was finally fulfilling their potential, Egypt is now a team without a manager (Hector Cuper was fired shortly after Egypt’s final World Cup loss), momentum and depending on how things are from here on out, a potential world superstar.

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based in Frederick, MD, USA. Multi-sport correspondent for Prost International and Prost Amerika focusing mainly on Soccer/Football and American Football

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