When Mohamed Salah scored a 95th minute penalty to send Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990, the entire nation rejoiced, and every Egypt fan fell into a child-like state of joy and hope. Egypt had just barely squeezed its way into the World Cup, and when the group stage draw was revealed two months later, that hope would grow even more so. Between Russia, an aging side hurt by injuries, Saudi Arabia, a side lacking in individual quality, and Uruguay, who would surely finish first, the stage was set for Mo Salah, who just kept getting better and better, to lead Egypt to the knockout round.
That hope evaporated and died on June 19, when Russia defeated Egypt 3-1 and booked their ticket, alongside Uruguay, for the knockout round. Things didn’t turn out like Egyptian supporters had wished; in fact, everything that could’ve gone wrong for Egypt did go wrong.
It all started on May 26, when a contentious 50/50 between Salah and Sergio Ramos saw Salah leave the Champions League Final in the 31st minute. Immediately, the Golden Boot winner, who broke the record for the most Premier League goals in a season, would face a race to be fit for a defining World Cup, the kind of tournament that could take him to Ballon D’Or glory if he exceeded the already-monumental expectations placed upon him.
Then, the politics started. Just hours after landing in Grozny, the capital of Chechyna, Salah was roused from his sleep and informed that the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadryov was waiting for him. The Egyptian forward, who likely had no idea of Kadyrov’s exploits, arose and greeted Kadryov, who drove him to Grozny’s football stadium, where they would pose for photos in front of thousands of Chechen supporters. Salah would pose next to Kadyrov as well as Kadyrov’s right-hand man Magomed Dauov, who authored the torture-inducing, bloody crackdown on LGBT Chechens in 2017. It was a publicity stunt gone awry, but it was just one of the many instances of Kadyrov meeting with athletes to increase his popularity. Kadyrov is a Chechen mafioso who uses publicity stunts with sports stars to impose legitimacy.
This is a man who blackmails referees. This is a man who uses kidnapping, murder, and rape to suppress his opposition. This is a man who does the violent bidding of Vladimir Putin with the callous bravado of Tony Soprano. There is no denying the appalling truth of Salah’s actions, but he wasn’t aware of Kadyrov’s past. He was but a man trying to recover from a shoulder injury, trying to sleep, and FIFA and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) allowed him to be used as a pawn in Kadyrov’s PR campaign.
Kadryov, who has a history of having sports stars like Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson visit Chechyna in order to establish legitimacy, needed to find a way for one of the most marketable Muslim athletes to come to Chechyna. He needed to find a way to appeal to Russian Muslims, a population he considers himself to be the representative of. He needed a gift. He got it handed to him by Putin in reward for his loyalty: Chechyna was approved as the World Cup base for Egypt’s national team.
Between the photo-op, the birthday cake that Kadyrov presented Salah with, and the honorary Chechen citizenship that Kadyrov granted Salah before Egypt’s final match against Saudi Arabia, these events would cloud the reigning Golden Boot winner in international controversy. But it was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to disagreements between EFA and their best player. After Egypt’s 3-1 loss to Russia, which ended The Pharaohs’ hopes of advancing to the knockout stage, Salah reportedly confronted EFA officials and chastised them for their mismanagement of the team. The EFA had invited Egyptian celebrities, politicians, and musicians to the tournament, and paid for their flights and accommodations. Salah reprimanded the officials for letting them into team camp, and thus causing a distraction.
On the eve of Egypt’s final group stage match against Saudi Arabia, as the end of Egypt’s first World Cup in 28 years approached, reports emerged that Salah was considering retirement from the national team because of EFA’s indiscreet transgressions and because of EFA allowing Kadyrov to use him as propaganda. In an attempt to keep their talisman on board, the Egyptian parliament has opened a lawsuit into the EFA, citing mismanagement and corruption.
EFA has severed its relationship with Mo Salah so much that Salah, who had been enjoying the finest form of his career, has implied he will only return to international duty after the right changes in personnel are made. But the growing discontent between EFA and Salah could neither begin to explain nor justify how dire Egypt were on the pitch.
Before Egypt had even qualified for the World Cup, many held doubts over manager Héctor Cúper’s ability to get the most out of the team. The year prior, Egypt had blown an early lead in the Africa Cup of Nations Final to lose to Cameroon. EFA backed him, placing their trust in him to lead Egypt to its first World Cup since 1990. However, as the finish line approached on the horizon, previous doubts re-emerged regarding Cúper’s style and ability to shake the perennial runner-up status that has haunted him throughout his career.
On August 31, Egypt lost 0-1 to Uganda, and lost the top position of their World Cup Qualifying group. Only the top spots of each African qualifying group go through to the World Cup, and Egypt would need to make amends during their next three matches in order to erase a 1-point differential between them and Uganda.
Throughout the loss to Uganda, Egypt failed to show signs of creativity; instead, just relying on Mohamed Salah to carry them to goal. It was in the spitting image of Lionel Messi’s Argentina; lackluster, uncoordinated, and unsustainable. The next game, Egypt got off to an early start after Salah capitalized on his own rebound to put the Pharaohs one goal to the good. As the game wore on, Uganda grew superior, creating a plethora of chances but just failing to put them away. Egypt would go on to win and retake the top spot in the table.
Fast forward one month later. With Uganda drawing to Ghana the day prior, Egypt only needed a win against Congo to advance to the World Cup. They started out in their guaranteed 4-2-3-1 formation; Cúpér never showed any semblances of tactical flexibility anyways. The plan was simple: get the ball to 6’3″ target man Ahmed “Kouka” Hassan, who would then lay it off for Salah, who would use his speed and ability to put Egypt ahead.
Even in the face of a disorganized Congo defense, the Argentine tactician stayed true to his conservative roots: instead of allowing right back Ahmed Fathy creative license to roam forward and link up with Salah, Cúpér hog-tied every Egyptian player who was not part of the front four to defensive roles. It was archaic, black and white thinking: if you’re an attacker, go on and attack then. If you’re not, do your job and shut up shop in front of goal.
To his credit, Cúpér recognized the staleness in attack, and at halftime, subbed on Mahmoud “Trézéguet” Hassan for Salah Gomaa, moving Salah to the #10 role, with Ramadan Sobhi and Trézéguet on the wings. This change would add much-needed speed in attack, and 7 minutes later, Salah capitalized on sloppy marking from the Congo defense to put Egypt one goal ahead. He took his shirt off and ran towards the stands (for which he would later receive a yellow card for) and celebrate, as the entire Borg El Arab Stadium grew drunk with jubilation at the prospect of reaching its first World Cup in 28 years. They believed they had the game wrapped up, and Cúpér decided to not attack anymore, banking on his team’s ability to seal a 1-0 lead.
Big mistake. In the 87th minute, a lovely ball floated in from Thievy Bifouma was converted by Arnold Bouka Moutou, who sprinted from outside the box to volley it home and equalize.
In this equalizer, Egypt failed to follow the basics of defending, and it cost them. You’d think a defensive team would, at the very least, understand the basics.
When they should have been packing defenders into the box, while also setting up a deep midfield block to soak up pressure, they were disorganized and disheveled. Rather than parking the bus, as you’d expect from a defensive team, Egypt took a stance of “lethargic pressure.” It was reactive, rather than proactive, and it allowed ample space for Congo’s players to run, dribble, and pass. Perhaps it was both individual and tactical failure: Mohamed Abdel-Shafy backed off too much when he should’ve attempted to block or tackle Thievy before the Sivasspor midfielder chipped the ball into the box. However, when the ball was played, only three players were in the box (Abdel-Shafy was standing off at the corner of the box). Credit to Bouka Moutou, who not only had the stamina, speed, and foresight to meet Bifouma’s through ball, but also the acrobatics and finishing touch to convert. But a truly effective defensive system would have placed far more players in the final line of defense; a truly effective defensive system would have not allowed Moutou to get a touch.
Egypt were headed for a 1-1 draw, and it’s not like they deserved any more. Their principal “tactic” was to give the ball to Salah and expect him to perform a miracle. They needed a miracle, and with just minutes remaining, they finally got one.
A poorly timed tackle from Bernard Itoua saw Trézéguet fly into the ground, and the referee called for a penalty kick that only one man was going to take. Salah stepped up, and smashed it into the right corner, before celebrating with fans who had run onto the pitch. He had done it, he had taken the hopes and dreams of an entire nation on his shoulders, and carried them into the World Cup. The triumph and exultation washed over the scene, obfuscating the gruesome manner in which Egypt qualified.
Two days later, Argentina would need a Lionel Messi hat-trick against a mediocre Ecuador side in order to qualify for the World Cup. Like Egypt, Argentina had devolved into a one-man team, devoid of creativity, verve, and chemistry. Sometimes, when you have a player so lethal and talented, you can just resort to giving him the ball, and expect a goal in return. Sometimes, having a world-class phenomenon in your attack can lead to as many problems as advantages. But what the hell, Egypt were off to the biggest tournament in football, and if Salah kept banging in the goals, they could allow themselves to dream of something more than just a group stage exit.
With less than a month left before their World Cup campaign commenced, Egypt’s attacking strategy fell prey to a sprained shoulder. Suddenly, Salah was facing a race against time to be fit for their first match against group favorites Uruguay. He made it to the bench, but not before being clouded in international controversy after his photo-op with Kadyrov.
Just like in the October qualifier against Congo, where Cúper rested on his laurels and banked on his team preserving a 1-0 lead, Cúpér stuck to his guns, banking on his team’s ability to grind out a 0-0 draw. There was no attacking strategy for Egypt whatsoever, and with Salah on the bench, there was never going to be. Cúper held true to his principles, and left Salah on the bench as Egypt sought to come back to Grozny with one point. Then, surely, a fully fit Salah would be able to lead Egypt past Russia and Saudi Arabia, and into the Round of 16.
It was ugly, but effective for the most part. Egypt lined up in their anachronistic, ultra-defensive 4-2-3-1, where only one fullback would join the attack each time, while the other fullback would stay deep and help defend. Meanwhile, the double pivot of Mohamed Elneny and Tarek Hamed stayed deep and close to one another. It was clear from the get-go that they wanted a stalemate, treating every minute of possession with uncouth irreverence.
Still, that was Cúper’s plan, and it was working to perfection. Between Trézéguet’s relentless defensive work, Martin Cáceres’ inability to add width on the left wing, and Uruguay’s failure to break down Egypt’s deep block, Cúper’s simple, defensive scheme was paying off. La Celeste’s midfielders and defenders failed to find Nahitan Nández and Giorgan De Arrascaeta behind the lines, and the pair were hooked in the 59th minute for two more natural wingers, Carlos Sánchez and Cristian Rodríguez. Óscar Tabárez would have hoped that this double change would, coupled with Egypt’s growing fatigue, sway the game in La Celeste’s favor and steal a win for Uruguay.
His hopes were not repaid, and Luis Suárez underwent one of the worst shooting performances of his international career, blowing chance after chance in front of goal. Héctor Cúper capped his cowardly tactics with a ballsy decision, to not sub on Mohamed Salah, trusting in his team’s ability to seal a stalemate. Much to the ire of the fans, Cúper decided to fully rest Salah for an aging Russian defense and a Saudi side that had just conceded 5 goals the day prior.
The plan worked. Until it didn’t.
In the 89th minute, José María Giménez de Vargas rose like a phoenix above Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed Hegazi to shoot a bullet header into the corner of Egypt’s goal. Héctor Cúper’s repugnant tapestry had been ripped to shreds in one swift movement. Uruguay would go on to take all three points.
With the entire team residing in a remorseful state of “what could have been,” the players set it upon themselves to forget about the Kadyrov fiasco, to forgive themselves for the heartbreaking, last-second loss, and prepare for a decisive match against Russia. A draw was necessary; a win was preferred. They had nothing on their minds besides giving it their all in the next game.
During the lead-up to the game, several players conducted interviews with Saudi-owned television networks. These players took up to $5,000 to speak to these networks without EFA’s knowledge, thus violating EFA sponsorship deals. In the debris of Egypt’s World Cup debacle, EFA President Hany Abo Rida announced that these rule-breakers would face fines as well as a 1-year ban from international football. As the Egyptian government’s sports committee investigates EFA for corruption, as the Egyptian people cope with the anguish of the World Cup disaster, and as the whole world points their microscopes to the culprits of it all, the EFA has decided to deflect the blame onto the players.
But that was now, and this is then. Egypt were set to face a high-flying Sbornaya team with their star player back in action. Cúper stuck to his obsolete 4-2-3-1, while Cherchesov held by the same guns that got him the 5-0 win on opening day: 4-2-3-1.
It was the same formation, but it certainly wasn’t the same tactics. While Russia constantly maintained width going forward, Egypt were narrow and bland. Mohamed Salah made his return as a second striker: with Abdallah Said playing as a #10, and with Trézéguet peeling off on the left-hand side, Salah played directly off of target man Marwan Mohsen. Tucked into the center, Egypt were hoping Salah’s central positioning would lead to dangerous counter-attacks. It was simplistic, direct stuff: hit it to Mohsen, who would lay it off in space for Salah to run onto and create a miracle.
The plan failed on all accounts. With Salah playing more centrally, 34-year-old Yuri Zhirkov had plenty of time and space on the ball, more than enough to combine with Denis Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin on the left flank. Russia were gaining steam on the left, and at the base of it all was Zhirkov, a 34-year old man who went untroubled by the devastating pace of Mo Salah.
Cúper intended for Egypt to find Salah quickly with space on the counter, but this was not so much of a feasible goal as it was a hapless invocation to the football gods. Egypt, on account of spacing and passing issues, failed to impose a sense of threat on the host country. Cherchesov had succeeded in his plan to contain the half-fit superstar, like he was extinguishing an ember before it could create a blaze. Golovin and Artem Dzyuba had done an admirable job of maintaining Russia’s off-the-ball 4-4-2, as the two marked Egypt’s midfield pairing of Elneny and Tarek Hamed out of the game. The Russian duo diligently worked to assure that, if anybody was giving the ball to Mo Salah, it wouldn’t be the central midfielders.
Deep in Sbornaya’s midfield, Salah waited for an opportunity for a counter. Monitoring him closely would be Roman Zobnin, who was tasked with monitoring the Golden Boot winner’s opportunities on the ball. Salah never got the opportunity to threaten until the game was already done and dusted, and Russia sealed their advancement into the knockout stage with a 3-1 win.
You could say that Egypt lost because of individual errors. They failed to win due to Cúper’s inability to instill an effective attacking strategy, but they leaked goals due to sloppy mistakes. In the 47th minute, Ahmed Fathy met Zobnin’s errant shot with a failed attempt at a clearance. The ball careened off the captain’s shin and into the goal. Russia went ahead 1-0. Then, Denis Cheryshev crept towards the goal area without so much as a mere acknowledgment from the Egyptian defense. The man who had scored two goals the previous game found himself unmarked in the box, and made no mistake in the finish. Three minutes later, Hegazi completely misjudged the trajectory and timing of a free kick. The West Bromwhich Albion defender fluffed his lines, failing to jump high enough to get a touch to the ball. Dzubya collected it onto his chest, waltzed past Ali Gabr, and slammed it into the bottom right corner without even being touched. For a good five seconds after the goal, Gabr stood stuck in his tracks, petrified by the calamity of Egypt’s World Cup campaign. Salah would go on to win a penalty and slot it home, but it was little more than consolation from a harsh truth: Egypt’s Cinderella story had come to an abrupt end, and the legal war between the players and EFA was just beginning.
The World Cup dreams of Egypt’s leader end here, at least for now. When Salah scored Egypt’s opener vs. Saudi Arabia, he surpassed Mohamed Aboutreika on Egypt’s all-time scoring charts. While any player would praised and deified for becoming his nation’s all-time leading goalscorer, Aboutreika’s story is a little less romantic. The government’s treatment of Aboutreika serves as a cautionary tale to Salah on not only whether he should play for Egypt again, but whether he should ever return to Egypt again.
Mohamed Aboutrika rose to national fame during his career, becoming widely beloved amongst Egypt’s fans. Such was his popularity, that after general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power from democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in a coup d’état, Sisi took it upon himself to make the noted Morsi supporter Aboutrika into a pariah.
Aboutrika was falsely accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and as he was put under investigation, the government froze his assets and put them under state control. He couldn’t even go to his dad’s funeral for fear of being arrested, and was exiled to Qatar, but not before being placed on Egypt’s terror list.
Salah, for fear of replicating the circumstances of Aboutrika, has shied away from stating his political views, instead keeping a low profile and doing what he is told. When he was threatened with military conscription unless he made a generous donation to the Tahta Masr Fund, he complied. The government threatened to prevent his family from leaving the country, and the then-Chelsea star acquiesced to their demands. Mohamed Salah doesn’t just have to carry his nation’s hopes on his shoulders; he has to answer to the Egyptian Don Corleone and pay him a fat check.
Héctor Cúper was the first international manager to be sacked after Egypt’s World Cup adventure ended, and with good cause. However, his sacking cannot paper over the cracks that menace the foundation of Egyptian soccer. To expect it to do so would be like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot to stop the bleeding.
Egypt need a manager who can harness the raw, creative energies of Ramadan Sobhi and Trézéguet, and author an attacking strategy more nuanced than “give the ball to Salah and let him figure out the rest.” However, that’s just the bare minimum. They need a football association that’s more concerned with improving the football team than alienating their players and running publicity stunts with corrupt henchmen. They need a government that will celebrate, not prosecute, its footballing heroes, whether they’re political allies or not. They need a complete rebuild if they are to ever compete in a World Cup again.
In the words of Salah himself, who tweeted this cryptic message on Sunday, “Some might think it’s over but it isn’t over. There needs to be change.”
Making that change might just be a bigger miracle than making it to the World Cup.
By: Zach Lowy
Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images