From withdrawals due to war, to erroneous off-side calls, to empty-net misses, to ‘Groups of Death’, to shots off the woodwork and untimely rule changes, we look back on the miserable misfortune of past World Cup qualifying campaigns and at how it finally went Egypt’s way.
The year was 1989. Budding legend Hossam Hassan had just headed home an early cross to send Egypt to its first World Cup since 1934, and a nation of then-56 million into a state of unadulterated euphoria.
Qualifying was sweet enough, but to do it over an arch rival that had just come off two successive World Cup finals appearances – toting all-time greats like Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi that had knocked off the likes of Germany – gave Egypt hope that it would finally become a mainstay at football’s showpiece event.
No more bad luck and no more withdrawing due to war as Egypt had in 1958, 1962, and 1966.
Fast-forward to 1993. Looking for its second World Cup appearance on the trot, Egypt beat a very game Zimbabwe outfit featuring the likes of former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar.
Except, it never happened. FIFA ordered the match replayed, saying the Cairo crowd hurled projectiles at the visitors.
While the merits of FIFA’s decision are certainly debatable, the fact was that Egypt would have to beat Zimbabwe again in order to progress in 1994 World Cup qualifying, but this time on neutral ground in France.
It didn’t matter what Egypt did that day, it was never going to score. Not even with an empty-net rebound.
Just like that, dreams of Egypt’s second World Cup finals appearance in a row vanished.
By the time qualifying started for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan, Egypt looked in arguably the best shape it’s ever been.
It was the turn of the millennium. Y2K fears had proven unfounded. Egypt enjoyed a spectacular triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) just two years prior.
Mahmoud El-Gohary, the Pharaohs’ greatest-ever manager, was back. El-Gohary was the man that took them to Italia ’90, and was the only person to win AFCON as both a player and a coach.
And to top it off, Egypt boasted a mix of legendary stalwarts like Hossam Hassan, Ahmed Hassan, Hany Ramzy, Hazem Emam; and rising stars like Mido, who was tearing up nets in Belgium and the Netherlands.
But as soon as optimism rose, Egypt was drawn into what proved to be Africa’s ‘Group of Death.’
The Pharaohs were joined by Morocco, who had just qualified for the previous two World Cups; Senegal, rapidly rising on the backs of El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga; and age-old rivals Algeria, ever-dangerous despite still reeling from a decade of internal strife.
Still, if any Egyptian team could overcome arguably Africa’s strongest ever World Cup qualifying group at the time, it was this one.
But the bad juju would start from the opening match, an away fixture in Dakar.
The aforementioned Emam would put a high through-pass into the net for what seemed like a vital away three points against Senegal.
The linesman cancelled it citing an offside, but replays showed the goal should have stood. I wish I was able to find a YouTube clip of it, but alas… pre-YouTube-era goals in Africa are still difficult to come by.
Egypt had no choice but to make the points up at home against Morocco, in front of a jam-packed Cairo Stadium and 120,000 rabid fans.
The Pharaohs controlled the match from start-to-finish, possessing with ease and creating what looked to be hard-to-miss scoring opportunities.
Among the biggest of which came in the first half. Bundesliga winger Mohammed Emara raised a trade-mark cross for an open Mido, but his towering header smashed off the crossbar.
Then came [another] infamous missed empty-netter. The one that would forever go down in Egyptian football folklore as the ‘haram aaleik ya Tarek’. The second-half miss by Tarek El-Said.
Another two points inexplicably lost, and Egypt’s USA ’94 qualifying misfortune was beginning to feel like a trend eight years later.
Moving ahead to Egypt’s final group match in Annaba, Algeria. The Pharaohs needed to win by multiple goals to stand any chance of qualifying over Senegal, who it beat in Cairo 1-0.
Yet another empty-net miss, this time from Mohamed Emara, aptly illustrates how that match – stopped multiple times due to projectile-tossing – would go for Egypt.
I mean, c’mon! Your pet iguana would have put that in the net. Hell, missing that actually takes a professional level of skill.
You can watch all of Egypt’s missed chances in 2002 World Cup qualifying in this tragic, hard-to-believe masterpiece of a montage:
You would think Egypt’s bad luck would have peaked here. Nope.
It’s now 2004, and hope is anew in the land of the pharaohs. However, Egypt ends up in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ once again, joining the likes of Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o.
But FIFA decided to dock six points from Cameroon after it failed to abide by FIFA’s kit laws. The Indomitable Lions sported a one-piece kit at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations that FIFA said risked player safety if it ever had to get the kit off in a hurry.
Remember that? Yeah, after intervention from longtime CAF strongman Issa Hayatou, the sanction was lifted and Cameroon had all to play for again.
Long story short, this one didn’t end well either. Egypt lost its first-ever home match to African opposition in World Cup qualifying, 2-1 to Ivory Coast. Egypt’s road included an away loss to neighbors Libya and a coaching change midway through the campaign.
South Africa 2010
Ah, the “coaching changing.” A passing footnote in this article but a titanic event in the annals of Egyptian football.
That coaching change ushered in the arrival of none-other than Hassan Shehata, who would lead Egypt to three straight AFCON titles; an unprecedented feat.
Two titles into their storied threepeat, Egypt would be a top seed for 2010 World Cup qualifying, meaning it may actually avoid the ‘Group of Death’ this time.
It did, and hope sprung more eternally than ever before. Except for one caveat… Egypt would be joined by bitter regional rivals Algeria.
And this wasn’t just Algeria in name, as with many of their 1990s and earlier 2000s squads. No, the Algerian civil war was now a half-decade behind it, and the Fennecs were quietly on the rise.
Stability was joined by the return of coach Rabah Saadane, the man that led them to their last World Cup finals appearance in 1986.
What could go wrong?
It took just one match to find out.
Egypt’s opening fixture was a home clash with Zambia. Everyone under the sun expected three points. The Pharaohs missed several sure-fire chances en route to a 1-1 draw.
Deep down inside we knew we’d rue dropping those points.
There was confusion in the media in the build-up to the decisive home showdown against Algeria. Would a 2-0 win be enough to send Egypt to the finals in South Africa? The away goals tie-breaker would suggest so, as Egypt lost 3-1 in Algeria.
Except, FIFA decided away goals would not apply in round-robin formats for these qualifiers.
On the plus side, Egypt was not sanctioned for the awful barrage of stones thrown at the Algeria team bus by a handful of unruly fans.
A similar incident occurred on Egypt’s bus after their 2001 qualifier in Annaba.
Emad Meteb’s injury-time header made it 2-0, and gave everyone the feeling that this was finally Egypt’s time. Why else would they have been able to storm back and share the group summit?
It just wasn’t meant to be, however. Not only because of the away-goals tie-breaker not being applied (it later returned for 2014 and 2018 World Cup qualifying, of course), but because Mohamed Barakat’s last-second shot could have made it 3-0, sending Egypt to South Africa without the need for an away-goals tie-breaker or a playoff in Sudan.
The rest was history. Algeria won the playoff on the strength of an Antar Yahia goal and an all-world performance from goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi, who wouldn’t even have played if first-choice keeper Lounès Gaouaoui wasn’t suspended for the match due to a yellow card he picked up a few days earlier in Cairo.
The years that followed saw Egypt undergo massive political upheaval. Its football was one of the aspects most affected.
But the arrival of American Bob Bradley, initially met with massive skepticism, suddenly created hope. Egypt won maximum points from its group stage matches, and suddenly the only thing standing between it and a return to the World Cup was a playoff with Ghana.
You probably know what happened next.
I know I not only speak for myself when I say that we were at an all-time low as a fan base and as a nation. Remarkable given all of the above, and that I didn’t even mention how many football fans were killed in that span.
But again, we got back up and dusted ourselves off; and gave it yet another go.
Some of the same players that suffered through that humiliating display were still on the team when 2018 World Cup qualifying got underway.
Hope was scarcer than ever before, especially when Egypt were drawn to face that same Black Stars squad that neutered it in Kumasi.
There was a massive changing of the guard, from an overhaul of the squad and passing of the torch to a new generation, to the hiring of Argentine manager Héctor Cúper, who’s career at the time could generously be described as flailing.
Cúper either resigned or was fired from his previous nine jobs.
Adding to the pessimism was the brand of football Egypt was playing under Cúper, one Egyptian fans spoiled by tiki-taka buld-ups and an attack that pleased even the most critical eye were wholly unaccustomed to.
Cúper employed a stingy defensive approach that traded possession and attack for conservatism and bus-parking.
The qualifying campaign started with a woeful 1-0 loss against Chad, a team Egypt had never lost to before. There were already calls for Cúper’s head.
But then the magic started. Things suddenly started going Egypt’s way.
The Pharaohs overturned the result in Chad in the second leg, a 4-0 home win.
And then, ironically, another boost of good fortune in the place where it all fell apart three years prior… Ghana. The Black Stars were held to a surprise draw at home by Uganda.
Egypt then beat Ghana in Alexandria, despite the visitors controlling the proceedings.
It was the polar opposite of what always seemed to happen to the Pharaohs in World Cup qualifying – dominate possession and scoring chances, but fail to win.
The magic continued at AFCON 2017 in Gabon. Egypt were ceding possession and chances, but somehow they kept winning.
They went all the way to the final, and were unapologetic of the fact that they had some good fortune along the way, especially after having missed AFCON 2012, 2013, and 2015.
But that’s not where Egypt – who are seven-time African champions – needed a change of fortune, as Cuper lost yet another final (the theme of his career).
Egypt needed that magic in World Cup qualifying, not AFCON.
Fans were skeptical that the team could ride what it saw as a negative approach all the way to Russia.
Amid complaints about his cynicism, it seemed Cuper simultaneously stuck to his guns and had a change of heart.
Call it an epiphany, perhaps. He realized that if he failed in Egypt it would probably spell the end of his career in any meaningful capacity.
He knew he had to tap into his former, slightly more daring and audacious self if he was going to get Egypt to the World Cup and resurrect his once-promising career.
The 61-year-old opened-up Egypt’s game, if only slightly. It worked.
It took an injury time penalty in the penultimate match, but it worked.
They say there’s a fine line between winning and losing in football, and boy does Cúper love to tow it.
Some fans would even tell you that Egypt reached the World Cup despite its manager, not because of him.
There are still complaints, and some calls for his resignation, which probably seems like lunacy to the casual football observer that only knows that Egypt just qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990.
Héctor Cúper may get some warranted criticism for parking the bus, but it can’t be denied that he drove that bus to a parking lot in Russia.
It finally happened.