The phrase “defense wins championships” is a popular one in North America. It’s meant to apply to team sports in general, and no where does it ring truer than in the world of football.
In the context of World Cup qualifying, we aren’t talking about championships per se, but something that would certainly feel like a title of sorts for Egypt, a football-mad nation of 90 million starving for another taste of the finals.
One thing in particular can end the Pharaohs’ 28-year World Cup drought… defense.
That’s not to say scoring goals isn’t important too. You can’t win unless you score. But history has shown us time and again that there’s a bigger correlator in Africa between goals-conceded and qualifying for the World Cup than there is between goals-scored and qualifying.
I started with the 1998 World Cup for this study, when Africa went to a five-group format in which the winners qualify automatically for the finals.
Kenya, Egypt and Zambia (tied with South Africa) all scored the most goals in their respective groups. None of them qualified for the World Cup.
The ones that did qualify? Nigeria, Tunisia, South Africa, Cameroon (tied with Angola), and Morocco, all of whom allowed the fewest number of goals in their respective groups.
This means that 100% of group winners had the fewest goals-against tally in their respective groups and qualified for the World Cup.
By contrast, only 50% of the teams that were at least tied for the highest goals-scored total in their group qualified.
Thus, it was the teams with the better defenses that more consistently won points and secured qualification.
Again in 2002 World Cup qualifying, 100% of group winners in Africa were at least tied for conceding the fewest goals in their group.
To put it in perspective, Egypt had the highest goals-scored mark in Group C yet didn’t even finish in the top two, falling behind both Senegal and Morocco who each conceded just three goals in eight matches compared to Egypt’s seven.
In Group A, Zambia scored just as many times as group-winners Cameroon (14), yet only finished third. The difference, once again, was defense. Cameroon’s goals-against mark was seven better than Zambia’s.
In World Cup 2006 qualifying, four of the five African group winners conceded the fewest goals in their group.
By contrast, just two of the five group winners had the highest goals-scored total.
Egypt actually scored more goals (26) than any other team in African qualifiers, yet couldn’t muster better than a third-place finish in their own group thanks to sub-par defending.
Togo, Ivory Coast and Angola were all outscored in their respective groups. However, all three allowed the fewest goals and qualified for the World Cup.
By now we can assume that this correlation is no fluke.
South Africa 2010
2010 World Cup qualifying is the closest we have to an aberration in this case study. Goals-scored and goals-against figures aligned for those that won their groups. But even then, the goals-against correlation to qualifying for the World Cup remained rock solid, with 100% of group-winners that were at least tied for conceding the fewest goals making it to the finals in South Africa. This time, however, those teams were also at least tied for the highest goals-scored tally in their respective groups.
All told between 1998 and 2010, 19 of the 20 (95%) World Cup qualifying group winners in Africa were at least tied for the fewest goals-against mark in their group.
By contrast, just 14 of the 20 (70%) group winners in that span had the highest goals-scored figure in their group.
The 2014 World Cup ushered in an odd new qualifying format. Group winners faced-off in a home-and-away knockout to determine the continent’s five representatives.
Even then, the goals-against correlator bore out. The teams with the best defenses in the group phase carried that over to the playoff round, beating their opponents home-and-away and qualifying for the finals in Brazil.
In order of fewest goals-against to most goals-against, the group-winners were: Cameroon (3), Ghana (3), Nigeria (3), Algeria (4), Burkina Faso (4), Senegal (4), Ivory Coast (5), Ethiopia (6), Tunisia (6), and Egypt (7).
Of the seven group winners that conceded the fewest goals, five (71%) won their playoff and qualified for the World Cup.
Here’s that list of group winners once again, this time in order of highest goals-for to lowest goals-for: Ghana (18), Egypt (16), Ivory Coast (15), Algeria (13), Tunisia (13), Senegal (9), Cameroon (8), Ethiopia (8), Burkina Faso (7), and Nigeria (7).
In contrast to the best defenses list, just four of the eight group winners that scored the most goals (50%) won their playoff and qualified for the World Cup.
Even in this one-off revised qualifying format, the teams with the best defenses qualified at a higher rate than those with the best offenses.
Numbers don’t lie, and the stats prove that a rock solid defense represents the best chance of getting to the World Cup.
Just ask the surviving members of Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary-led 1990 World Cup squad, which allowed only two goals in eight qualifying matches. Their astonishing 0.25 goals-allowed-per-match in 1990 World Cup qualifying was the best in Africa.
So, can today’s Egypt defense come through?
No one knows the answer just yet. What we do know, given all of the above, is that it may be the single most important question facing the Pharaohs heading into qualifying.
If the answer is “yes,” then it’ll likely result in a trip to Russia in under two years. If the answer is “no,” history shows us that not even leading the group – and the entire continent – in goals scored will be enough to make up for it.
This is essentially coach Héctor Cúper’s last chance at this level. Both he and the Egyptian team he manages are experiencing historical droughts. Cúper hasn’t been a winner in a decade-and-a-half, just as Egypt hasn’t succeeded in World Cup qualifying in nearly double that time. An ironic pairing, and an appointment that didn’t make much sense to many.
But the Egyptian FA was never going to pay for a proven foreign commodity, and never has. The silver lining here is that Cúper has a propensity to emphasize defending. But emphasizing defending and successfully executing it are two different things, and his tenure hasn’t been particularly encouraging despite Egypt’s qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2010.
Let’s assume Cúper himself is good enough. What about his personnel? Does Egypt have the defenders it’ll take to qualify? With Cúper’s preferred center-back pairing of Al-Ahly’s Ahmed Hegazy and Rami Rabia battling injuries, the 60-year-old Argentine already has his work cut for him, and at a position already lacking in depth.
Of course, the task may have been easier had FIFA not infamously cheated Egypt out of its top seed for the qualifying group draw at the behest of the Tunisian FA.
However, regardless of Egypt’s seeding and which group they subsequently landed in, the premise is proven and remains the same… defense wins championships. And more importantly for the Pharaohs… defense gets you to the World Cup.