The stage is set for an incredibly intriguing matchup tomorrow between Egypt and South Africa and the storyline is much different than what we’ve come to expect from the defending African champs who are surprisingly on the verge of being disqualified from a tournament that they have practically made their own, especially over the last three editions that they won in succession. The question is, in light of the recent unrest that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and also brought the Egyptian Premier League to a screeching half, are the Pharaohs ready to turn their qualifying campaign around?
Firstly, it must be noted that Egypt’s dip in form preceded their revolution, as evidenced by a home draw against Sierra Leone and a 1-0 away loss against Niger. These two shocking results have left them in the unfamiliar place of being at the very bottom of their group. The fact that this happened when the Egyptian Premier League was still up and running is a cause for concern for, as everyone knows, coach Hassan Shehata has always mostly relied on home-based players. If these same footballers couldn’t produce the goods when they were playing consistently at club level, then what is to say they can rise to the occasion when they’ve been relatively inactive for months on end?
In his pregame press conference, South Africa’s coach, Pitso Mosimane, was quick to denounce such a theory, correctly pointing out that the Egyptians have been training together for longer than his side have. Furthermore, Al-Ahly and Zamalek played in CAF Champions league fixtures a little over a week ago so it isn’t as if their representatives have been sitting around without anything to do. Most importantly, the Egyptians have the benefit of continuity and cohesiveness that has been fostered by Shehata during his extremely successful seven-year tenure and the winning mentality that has seen them become the most successful team on the continent. Thus, even in their precarious position, counting them out when they have their back to the wall would be foolish.
The real concern for Shehata isn’t whether his side can win in South Africa. History proves that they absolutely can. What is truly troubling for him, and the team that he has built, is that if they don’t win, not only will they be dangerously close to being disqualified from the AFCON but he may lose his job as well. His close ties to Mubarak, which continually shielded him from criticism over the years, haven’t done him any favors in the post-revolutionary Egypt and fans are waiting for his next misstep to call for the sack. In fact, plenty already have.
In many ways, the former Zamalek player can count himself lucky that his first game after the revolution is far away from Cairo where he, and many national team players, may have been subjected to abuse from fans who will have a hard time forgetting that they rallied in support of Mubarak instead of siding with the people. This will perhaps be Shehata’s last chance to make amends for that mistake. For the Pharaohs, there’s much more than a simple qualification at stake here and one expects that they’ll bring their A game to Ellis Park even though their preparations have been less than ideal.