The soccer-mad country has won the African Nations Cup seven times but has qualified for only two previous World Cups — in 1934 and 1990. On both occasions, Egypt bowed out without winning a game but under the guidance of Argentine Hector Cuper it has the ability to go deep in this year’s tournament.
The pace and finishing skills of forward Mohamed Salah are a lethal asset and a group including Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia gives Egypt a good chance of making the knockout stages for the first time.
Egypt is ranked above Russia and Saudi Arabia, and should finish second in Group A behind Uruguay but will probably face title contender Spain or Portugal in the last 16. Cuper’s team came through the third round of World Cup qualifying with four wins, a draw and one defeat, using a game plan based on a strong defensive foundation.
The 62-year-old, who twice took Valencia to the Champions League final, has developed a team capable of soaking up pressure and using Salah’s pace to launch devastating counter-attacks.
The Argentine’s tactics have divided opinion, with many fans craving more attacking adventure, but Egypt’s run to last year’s African Nations Cup final showed how effective it is at tournaments.
With 44 goals and 16 assists in all competitions for Liverpool this season, Salah is Egypt’s talisman and most potent weapon, scoring five of his country’s eight goals in the final round of qualifiers.
Behind him, Egypt has a mixture of youth and experience. Cuper can call on Stoke City’s Ramadan Sobhi and Mahmoud Hassan, better known as “Trezeguet”, both of whom have the ability to trouble defences.
Goalkeeper and captain Essam El Hadary will become the oldest player to play at a World Cup at the age of 45, while West Bromwich Albion centre back Ahmed Hegazi has a strong partnership with Rami Rabia in central defence.
Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny shields the back four, while Abdallah Said, who plays his club football for Al Ahly, offers creativity in midfield. Trezeguet spoke of Egypt’s need for self-belief if it is to progress beyond the group stages.
“We’ll need to play each match as if it were a final,” he said. “We mustn’t fear any team at the World Cup.”
FIFA RANKING: 45
(AS OF JUNE 7)
PREVIOUS TOURNAMENTS: Egypt has appeared in two World Cups — in 1934 and 1990 — and has never won a match in the tournament. The Pharaohs became the first African nation to qualify for a World Cup in 1934, but was beaten 4-2 by Hungary in its only game. It finished bottom of its group at the 1990 tournament with two draws and a defeat.
FORM GUIDE: The team, which reached the African Nations Cup final last year, has two wins, three draws and three defeats in its last eight matches.
PROSPECTS: Egypt is drawn in Group A with Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Uruguay, led by strikers Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez, are favourites to top the group, but Egypt could finish second. If it makes it to the last 16, Egypt will play the first or second-placed team from Group B featuring Spain, Portugal, Iran and Morocco, all above Egypt in the FIFA world rankings.
Hopes hinge on Salah’s lethal finish
Egypt forward Mohamed Salah heads to the World Cup with the reputation of being one of the most lethal finishers in the game, and his country’s hopes of making it to the knockout stages rest overwhelmingly on his shoulders.
Few would have guessed what was to come when Salah moved from Italy’s AS Roma to Liverpool for a club-record fee at the start of the season, but the 25-yearold’s prolific campaign earned him a sweep of top individual awards.
A return of 44 goals and 16 assists has helped to fire Liverpool to the Champions League final and Salah was named African player of the year as well as the top player in England by the PFA and Football Writers’ Association. He is already being compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and will have a shot at breaking that daunting duo’s stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or if he can lead Egypt out of Group A and into the knockout stages in Russia.
Salah’s pace and eye for goal make him a formidable opponent and he is adored in his country, with every game he plays for Liverpool watched by thousands of fans in Cairo. Egypt would not be heading to the World Cup without Salah — his two goals against Congo secured its qualification for the tournament.
Salah’s dramatic stoppage-time penalty that sent Egypt through to its first World Cup appearance in 28 years was celebrated wildly in the streets by millions of fans and he is hailed as a hero in the country.
Egypt is set up to get the best out of its talisman, defending deep and looking to get the ball to his feet as quickly as possible to allow him to do what he does best. The soccer-mad nation has never won a match at the World Cup but if Salah can capture even a fraction of his best form in Russia the fans could be dancing in the streets of Cairo in a few weeks’ time.