Anyone who has watched the Pharaohs of Egypt at the last three Nations Cup tournaments, will find it difficult to reconcile their current form with those performances. They are the only team to win the trophy 3 times in a row, and boast an unbeaten record of 19 games at the competition, including winning the last 9. However, they are almost certain not to defend their crown next year in Gabon/Equitorial Guinea. They lie bottom of qualifying Group G, winless with just 2 points from 4 games.
Following their home draw with South Africa, legendary coach Hassan Shehata stepped down on June 6th, marking the end of an extremely successful 7 years at the helm, the only blemish on which was failure to qualify for either the 2006 or 2010 world cups. The latter was particularly galling, coming as it did in a hotly contested 2 legged playoff with arch-rivals Algeria. They would extract maximum revenge for that defeat, beating Algeria 4-0 in the 2010 semis.
After taking over in 2004 from Italian Marco Tardelli, Hassan Shehata built a team that swept all before them in the Nations’ Cup, playing a 3-4-1-2 formation. The core of the team was from Al-Ahly, and it no doubt contributed to the strong team spirit and chemistry. Shehata himself made no allowance for indiscipline, as Mido will testify. Players like legendary goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, Wael Gomaa, Ahmed Hassan, Mohammed Aboutrieka and Mohammed Zidan produced some of the best football on the continent for some time. With excellent wing backs like Ahmed Fathy, Sayed Moawad and later, Ahmed El-Mohammady (nicknamed ‘Elmo’ by Sunderland fans), they presented african teams with a problem they had forgotten how to solve. An emphasis on possession meant they controlled games, and every mistake was ruthlessly exploited. In 2008, arguably their best campaign, they put four goals past both Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. A change in formation for the final meant Cameroon slowed Egypt down somewhat, but Rigobert Song’s error was the difference.
What has gone wrong for the Pharaohs? After becoming the first coach to win 3 Nations’ Cups, Nigeria asked Hassan Shehata to take the Super Eagles to the world cup. The Egyptian FA agreed to let him move on, but he chose to stay. On hindsight, it seems like a year too long. He should have left on a high. As results went south, he was criticised for not bringing in younger players, and his tactics and selection were also questioned, especially in the shock defeat to Niger, when he dropped Hani Said to the bench and played Mahmoud Fathallah in an unfamiliar sweeper role. Off the field, his support for Hosni Mubarak reduced his popularity and hastened the parting of ways.
As they search for a new coach, the reign of the Pharaohs looks to be over at least for now. Who will replace them? Ghana, who won the World Youth Championships late in ’09, lost narrowly to Egypt in last year’s Nations’ Cup final and were an Asamoah Gyan penalty away from a World Cup semi final look to be the logical successors. The average age of the squad to South Africa was 24, the youngest in the competition. It suggests that they could dominate for some time to come, unless Siasia’s Super Eagles raise an objection.
Egypt’s success was a result of continuity at the helm, which is very important given the stop-start nature of international football. It is something that Nigeria, in particular, must emulate in order to return to the top. The team seems to be on the right track. Hopefully, it stays there.