This Egyptian team has been more physically taxed than any other this AFCON. But should their muscles fail, their Portuguese coach has wired their minds against the world.
The eye cannot see what the mind does not know, and nobody knows that better than Carlos Queiroz.
“Here’s the thing about tournaments. Sorry for my language but s**t happens. It doesn’t change anything if you complain, so if we get to a point when key players get injured, we just need to look into the squad and deal with it. What is important is to have every scenario covered in your mind, so that you can see what to do when you need to.”
Now 68 years old, the coach of Egypt was speaking ahead of the AFCON, answering a question about how he’ll deal with an injury to his best players – as happened to Mohamed Salah (shoulder injury from a Sergio Ramos tackle) at the 2018 World Cup.
“We are going to Cameroon to play seven games, that’s what I know. To achieve that, we have a squad. They are more like family, even though they are from different generations; some of these players are new to this stage, and some have grown together since they were at youth level.”
One wonders if, at the time the coach made this comment, he was aware of a certain video that perfectly illustrates the team he has.
The footage is 28 seconds long.
It begins with a beaming Salah, on the furthest seat at the back of a bus with his Egyptian national teammates. He leans forward – microphone in right hand, polyphonic phone in left – and with a big smile, banters someone seated in front of him. That ‘someone’ is Mohamed Elneny.
20-year-old Salah is ribbing Elneny. “He bought a pair of socks a year ago, and likes them so much that it’s all he wears and never washes them – it’s time for a change!”
Throwback to this iconic footage of Mohamed Salah jokingly mocking Elneny for not changing his socks for more than a year on the Egypt U21 team bus. ☠️ pic.twitter.com/4VNly0XMUp— Mootaz Chehade (@MHChehade) March 23, 2019
This was sometime in 2012, sometime before the London Olympics. Egypt was among five nations to represent Africa. Both players were teammates at local side Al Mokawloon and Salah – already a hot youth prospect – was to sign for Basel within months. Elneny had not hopped onto the European train yet, but his talent was obvious; he would join his mate in Switzerland a year later.
Here they are, in September 2013, training ahead of a UEFA Champions League game.
Both players had made their senior national team debuts in the same game in 2011, shortly after they turned 19– Elneny in June, Salah in July. Ten years on, the bond between them has become key to the “family” Queiroz speaks of. This is a Pharoahs side looking to seize its moment in Cameroon.
The Queiroz Factor
At the AFCON today are two players who were in that Olympic team with Salah and Elneny a decade ago: defenders Ahmed Hegazi and Mahmoud Alaa. For a country that prides itself on building winning club and national teams from robust youth systems, this lack of progression may be seen as quite surprising.
But it shouldn’t be. After all, it’s Queiroz in charge.
As stated in our tournament preview of Egypt, the former Manchester United assistant coach is typically single-minded about his tactical convictions. If he fails, you can expect him to apologize, publicly.
“When he named the team for the AFCON there were a few names that raised eyebrows, and everyone was wondering why they were there,” Amr Fahmy of BeIN Sports told The Analyst.
Yet, not for the first time in his recent managerial career, the Portuguese coach has been vindicated.
In the squad is 22-year-old center back Mohamed Abdelmonem, who starred for Future FC as they got promotion into the Egyptian top flight for the first time in its history. From the same team is Omar Kamal, another virtual unknown who was always a left/right winger at club level, but now has been superb as a right back these past few weeks. Both players were strangers to the public spotlight before Queiroz was appointed.
Same can be said of Stuttgart’s Omar Marmoush, who had never played for Egypt before Queiroz was brought in.
At the tournament, all three have been electric, and have contributed to the swell of support the team is enjoying back home.
But it wasn’t thus in the group stage. A poll by popular website Koora after Egypt beat Guinea Bissau in their second group game showed 66% of voters wanted Queiroz out.
“He had not fully understood the team by then,” says Ayman Atef, a Cairo-based journalist. “Remember, he took an almost completely different team from this one to the Arab Cup in December, where Egypt finished fourth.”
Two games later, in the round of 16, the Pharoahs beat Cote d’Ivoire on penalties in a coherent performance that turned the tide of public opinion. By the time the next game – a gutsy 2-1 comeback quarter-final win against Morocco – was over, there was real belief that a first trophy since 2010 was coming.
A Siege Mentality
In order to forge this steadily improving team, Queiroz has had to create a we-against-the-world mentality. He couldn’t have found a more fertile football culture than this one.
Nabil Fekry, another Cairo-based journalist makes an argument. “Four out of our seven AFCON titles were won outside Egypt. We’ve won more games in AFCON history away from home than any other nation. Our club teams are Africa’s most successful because we’ve mastered the art of psyching in enemy territory.”
Essentially, Queiroz – a man whose last two jobs were in the passion centers of Colombia, and Iran – found another crucible to whip up this siege mentality. He has not spared any efforts in that regard.
On Wednesday, he put the team’s final training session ahead of the semi against Cameroon on hold after a drone is said to have appeared on the grounds. Multiple sources say it turned out to be only a stadium security drone. After that, he stopped tactical training and took the side through random routines.
This edginess around the team should be understandable, considering that Samuel Eto’o had, after Cameroon had booked their place in this semifinal, told the Indomitable Lions to “prepare…because it will be war” against Egypt. Queiroz has already swiftly responded to the football legend, retorting that Eto’o’s comments showed he “had learned nothing in football [in all his years at the top level].”
There’s also the matter of the semi-final match referee, Bakary Gassama.
Immediately it was announced that the Gambian will officiate the game, Egypt filed a protest, asking for the 42-year-old to be changed. No official reason was given, but having been in charge of a few matches involving Egyptian club teams who lost controversially, Gassama is not very popular in the country. Never mind that it he who was in charge of their 2-1 win against Congo in 2017 that qualified them for the Russia World Cup; they wanted him changed.
CAF did not budge, and the resulting 120 minutes saw Egyptian players and staff really test the official’s limits. It was all mental.
On hindsight, Egypt have been playing mind games for days now.
First, they missed a press conference ahead of the quarter-final “due to traffic delays”, the team said. It was an odd excuse for such an experienced team, and after investigating, CAF fined the Pharoahs $100,000. Sources within the team and CAF say there were no traffic delays; it was just Egypt who did not want to show up.
In the game against Morocco itself, the Egyptian bench was a portrait of frenzy: complaining about every 50/50 ball that did not go their way, screaming at match officials, encroaching the area outside the bench, and generally being a nuisance. It led to assistant coach Wael Gomaa being given a yellow card.
“It’s all deliberate,” laughs Fekry. “You have to understand that these things are psychological. It’s Egypt, after all. Winning is as much mental as it is physical.”
Nobody does this stuff better than Egypt, and their record seven AFCON titles are peppered by several matches where gamesmanship trumped actual football, as was seen against Morocco.
But whatever mental victories have been chalked so far are past, and the battle against a Senegal side improving as steadily as Egypt will make for a fascinating finale.
Learning from Cameroon
How Egypt beat the host nation in the semi-final has probably been asked 100 times by Senegalese team analysts. In layman’s terms, Egypt played to their strengths, while a profligate Cameroon also failed to keep momentum when needed.
The Indomitable Lions counted on physical superiority to best the north Africans, but by the 20th minute, Egypt was well into the dark arts – keeper Gabalski repeatedly falling, the bench being a nuisance, players pining against the ref… literally anything to disrupt the flow of the game.
Beyond just being irritants, there was a practical side to the Pharoahs’ play: they had needed extra-time in all two (now three) previous knockout games, including a penalty shootout in the last 16 (now includes in the semis). In short, had they allowed Cameroon to flow, the game could have been over by the hour mark.
Senegal, on the other hand, will be rested. They qualified for the final a day before Egypt did, and even before then had scale each knockout round in regular time. Will it affect Queiroz side?
Beyond the Mentality, a Decent Team
All this talk of Egypt being mentality monsters should not detract from what is a well-coached side. In keeping with a rich tradition, this team continues a national trait of producing excellent goalkeepers, as seen in this tournament.
El Shenawy has prevented 3.3 goals, which is by far the best by any keeper in the tournament. His replacement, Gabaski, has prevented 1.5 goals and has been the hero of two shootouts.
Senegal are not the fastest movers of the ball from the ball, and that could play into the Pharaohs hands. Egypt have made 94 pressed sequences – the most by any team at this tournament, and it shows how effective their high press in the opposition half has been.
Just Get on With It
Before facing Cameroon, Queiroz said their “strategy is simple and based on three points: run, run, run and play, play, play. And we hope that with that strategy, we will win.”
Unless Egypt is getting superhuman strength from somewhere, this tactic will not work against a fresher Teranga Lions. Expect the north Africans to sit deep and counter.
A key worry will be the unavailability of Ahmed Hegazi, whose tournament has ended due to injury. Mahmoud Alaa or Mahmoud Hamdy could take his place. The game still comes too soon for goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy, whose hamstring got done in the round of 16.
But Queiroz is not one to complain about these things.
In the opening game defeat against Nigeria, right back Akram Tawfik got injured. No complaints. Against Guinea Bissau, left-back Ahmed Fattouh and Mahmoud Hamdy got muscular problems. No complaints. El Shenaway did his hamstring and Hamdy Fathy had a sprain, all against Cote d’Ivoire. No complaints. Against Morocco, substitute keeper Abou Gabal had a groin issue, in addition to the Hegazi situation. And, while the likes of Algeria and other teams constantly whined about the poor state of the Japoma Stadium pitch in Douala, Queiroz simply parried away any such protestations.
He gets on with the job. And you can imagine that not being on the bench in the final due to his suspension from the Cameroon game won’t draw any complaints from him either.
That’s the kind of opponent Senegal should expect. Any legal trick in the rulebook will be employed, and some thaumaturgy from wherever he’s seated, too.
The Lions just need to get used to it.
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