Egypt have been made to wait for 27 years to qualify for the World Cup again, but finally secured their return to the big time on Sunday when they beat Congo-Brazzaville 2-1 to secure top spot in Group E.
Success on Sunday was the latest step in the nation’s renaissance following a tumultuous seven years which began with the Arab Spring, through the Port Said massacre, the suspension of the local league, and three missed Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.
Before this year, Egypt hadn’t qualified for the Afcon since 2010, missing out in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
What’s more surprising is that in the three tournaments before that hat-trick of barren years, the Pharaohs had won a trio of back-to-back titles, conquering the continent in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Putting that remarkable success into contest, only three times before had a nation retained the continental title—Egypt in the late 1950s, Ghana in the early 60s and Cameroon at the turn of the century.
To win three in a row was an unprecedented feat, as one of the greatest sides Africa has ever known outclassed every domestic opponent they faced during three tournaments.
They beat the much fancied Golden Generation of Cote d’Ivoire on penalties on home soil in 2006, then eclipsed Cameroon and Ghana—two other fine sides—to follow that triumph up with consecutive cup successes in the following tournaments.
During those three campaigns, the Pharaohs played 18 matches, winning 15, drawing three and losing none.
They scored 42, conceding 10, and racked up some memorable triumphs, notably thumping Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon 4-2 in 2008, demolishing the Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation 4-1 in the 2008 semi, beating Nigeria 3-1 in the 2010 group stage and smashing Algeria 4-0 in the 2010 semi final.
On these major occasions—the truly high-pressure contests that defined careers—Egypt delivered, often crushing the opponents in almost embarrassingly one-sided bouts.
Theirs was a star-studded team from top to bottom, even if depressingly few of that fine generation ever really made much of a club impact beyond their homeland.
During those three triumphs, Egypt produced one top scorer—Gedo in 2010—and two Player of the Tournaments—Ahmed Hassan (twice) and Hosny Abd Rabo.
The likes of Essam El-Hadary and Wael Gomaa (both three times), Mohamed Aboutrika (twice), Abd Rabo, Hassan, Ahmed Fathy, Mohamed Zidan and Amr Zaki all made the Team of the Tournament after outstanding contributions.
Simultaneously, players like Hossam Hassan, Emad Moteab, Mohamed Shawky, Hany Said, Mohamed Barakat, Mido, Hossam Ghaly, Shikabala and Abdel Zaher El Saka represented an outstanding supporting cast.
And in Hassan Shehata—who oversaw all three triumphs—they boasted an outstanding coach with over half a century of experience of the Egyptian game.
They were a truly magnificent generation of talent, and while none can match the club honours of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Benni McCarthy or Nwankwo Kanu, it’s telling that that glittering quartet don’t have one Afcon winner’s medal between them.
However, while the aforementioned four can all boast of a World Cup appearance, that’s something at all of Egypt’s Golden Generation have in common—none of them ever made it to the grandest stage of all.
It appears to be a remarkable quirk—that the continent’s hat-trick winners never managed to muddle their way through a World Cup qualifying campaign.
However, it’s worth noting that only one qualifying programme actually overlapped with their three successes.
They’d already missed out on Germany 2006 before their first Afcon triumph after finishing behind Cameroon and the Ivorians in a nightmarish qualifying group.
By the time they were trounced 7-3 on aggregate in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, they were already almost four years removed from their last continental success, and had already missed out on two Nations Cups.
The qualification campaign that many of that Egyptian side will surely rue falling short in was the programme that preceded the 2010 World Cup—the first on African soil.
It was a particularly dramatic way to fall short, as the Pharaohs and bitter rivals Algeria finished level on points, goal records and head-to-head records in Group C, and were forced to play a tiebreaker in neutral Sudan.
Mercifully, it wasn’t quite as fiery affair as the final group game between the two, when Moteab’s 95th-minute strike ensured there was nothing to separate the two in the group standings.
However, the Pharaohs weren’t able to build on that momentum, and a team that boasted many of the Afcon heroes were defeated 1-0 in Omdurman after Anhar Yahia scored the only goal of the game in the first half.
It was the closest that any of these majestic talents ever came to the World Cup, and several ended their international careers in ignominious circumstances when they were humiliated by Ghana four years later.
During that 2014 qualifying campaign, the imperious Aboutrika was the programme’s joint top scorer alongside his would-be successor Mohamed Salah.
While the former’s glorious career was ultimately never capped off by a shot at the Mundial, Salah now has that opportunity after netting twice against Congo—including the last-minute winner to see the Pharaohs over the line.
He’d have had a fight on his hands to nail down a starting spot in the Egyptian team if he’d been born ten years earlier, but as arguably North Africa’s most prominent player today, he’s a worthy successor to those who have gone before.
Salah may have missed out on playing his part in Egypt’s Golden Generation, but expect one of two of his heroes to be watching on enviously when he leads Hector Cuper’s team out in Russia next summer!