Egypt seeks to defy critics at Confederations Cup
Loss of Amr Zaki to injury is a big blow for the Pharaohs.
Egypt is one of the great enigmas of international soccer.
The Pharaohs are the undisputed kings of the game on their continent, having won the African Cup of Nations a record six times, while Cairo outfits Al-Ahly and El Zamalek are the two biggest forces on the African club circuit with 11 African Champions League titles between them.
But for all of its dominance in Africa, Egypt has flattered to deceive in international competition - the Egyptians have qualified for the World Cup only twice (in 1934 and 1990), bowing out in the first round both times without winning a single game.
In 1999, Egypt made its Confederations Cup debut in Mexico, but that too ended in disappointment, as they returned home after the first round without registering a victory.
Ten years have passed, and Egypt, the reigning African champions, is set to compete in this month's Confederation s Cup in South Africa, but few expect the Pharaohs to survive the first round with opponents the calibre of Italy, Brazil and the United States lying in wait.
Egypt can't seem to duplicate its African success when it matters the most.
Egyptian soccer standing still
"Egypt is very much like Arsenal, in that they're one of the dominant teams in England and they know how to play in the English Premier League but they've not been able to translate those performances into success in European club competitions," Austyn Akpataku, Toronto-based publisher and African soccer expert, told CBCSports.ca.
"It's the same thing with Egypt — they know how to win African football competitions, but when it comes to the big, international stage, they always fail."
Akpataku believes Egypt's domination of African soccer has led to a lack of ambition. While other national teams are developing and evolving, Egypt is standing still.
"Because they have one of the most organized pro leagues in Africa, and because they've dominated the African Champions League and other tournaments in Africa, including the Cup of Nations, there's a degree of complacency there," Akpataku explained.
"Teams from other continents, meanwhile, are always redefining themselves, playing friendlies, trying different tactics. Egypt just hasn't been able to take it to the next level."
Tactical rigidity is also to blame for Egypt's underachievement outside of Africa.
Since taking over the reins in 2004, coach Hassan Shehata has rarely strayed from using an ultra-defensive 3-4-1-2 formation that has served him well against African opponents, but won't win any points for style or creative invention, or cause trouble for European or South American opposition.
"He's not looking outside the box," opined Akpataku. "He's been using the same tactics for a long time now. He hasn't changed tactics or updated them."
A defining moment
The Egyptians sit in last place in their World Cup qualifying group following a humiliating 3-1 loss to Algeria and are in real danger of missing out on next year's tournament in South Africa.
The hope among Egyptian fans is that a strong showing at the Confederations Cup could light a spark under the national team.
"The Confederations Cup will be a defining moment for them," said Akpataku. "If they perform woefully, it would upset morale and disrupt their preparations for 2010. But if they do well, it will bolster confidence and set them down the path to qualification."
That's easier said than done, though, especially after star striker Amr Zaki was ruled out of the tournament earlier this week because of a hamstring injury.
Zaki took the English Premier League by storm this past season with his solid performances for Wigan Athletic. His absence means Egypt doesn't really have another world-class striker it can rely on for goals in South Africa.
But Egypt has proven it can overcome adversity.
Another star striker, Ahmed Hossam Mido, was thrown off the national team during the 2006 African Cup of Nations. Mido got into a shouting match with Shehata after the Egyptian coach substituted him out of the game, but it proved the right move as his replacement, Zaki, scored the winning goal to propel the Egyptians into the final.
Few gave Egypt much of a chance of beating the Ivory Coast in the final without Mido, but the Pharaohs emerged victorious, and the belief is that they can overcome the loss of Zaki and do it again this summer.
"Egypt has been through this before with Mido, and what Egyptian football showed is that it can move on without some of its great stars," said Akpataku.