One cannot grow up in Egypt and not love football. The smiles of kids playing in the streets, their joy and passion, and their wild cheers after winning are all part of my childhood memories. But such scenes were not always upbeat and cheerful; I also remember the ugly bickering, yelling, and fights following defeat. Football in Egypt has always mirrored our society, with all its blessing and flaws. During the country’s World Cup journey, Egypt swung wildly between exuberant joy and equally ugly anger and depression. Every society has its own flaws, but in Egypt, our flows are toxic and destructive, enough to doom us to defeat even when we are desperate to win. Egypt’s football “Naksa” is cruel and painful, but it should be an opportunity for reflection and learning.
A popular Egyptian idiom says “an inch of good luck is better than an acre of hard work.” This very destructive idiom has created a collective backgammon mentality in Egypt, which makes us systematically rely on (or blame) luck for our successes (or failures). Luck may help once, but smart hard work is what leads to and, more importantly, maintains success.
Let’s go back to our October qualification match. Anyone with basic football knowledge can recognize that Egypt did not play well in that match. Without the last-minute penalty and Mohamed Salah’s beautiful goal, the team’s chance for qualification would be different.. It is baffling how anyone can believe that Egypt’s shaky performance against Congo could have so miraculously improved in just a few months—enough to beat stronger teams such as Russia and Uruguay.
Instead of acknowledging the modest standard of our team, we Egyptians were carried away with joy and wrongly assumed that our inch of luck would be enough to continue to secure us victory, as long as we had the talented Mohamed Salah.
A Story of Two Penalties
After our crushing defeat in Russia, many looked with nostalgia to Egypt’s last performance twenty-eight years ago in the 1990 World Cup, as if that Egyptian team was so much better. Such nostalgia is misplaced. The 1990s Egypt was no different except for its lack of a high-expectation mentality. Our expectations back then were not high, because we knew that our team’s modest skills. The result was a more relaxed performance—albeit modest, but not poor.
The difference between the two World Cup performances was in the timing of our penalties. In 1990, Egypt scored in the first match of the competition, giving us a moral boost. However, in 2018, our crucial penalty was in the last match of the qualifying stage, which only created misplaced high expectations and arguably complacency.
A One-Man Show
The focus on Salah’s qualifying goal, which coincided with his amazing performance in the English football Premier League, inappropriately skyrocketed our confidence and, more dangerously, created a Salah-dependent mentality. The rest of the team came to rely on Salah’s presence and performance. Although other football teams rely on one star (e.g., Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar), the gap between those stars and other players on their respective teams is not usually as wide as what exists on the Egyptian team. This wide gap may have knocked down the confidence and the standard of other players, leading them to rely completely on Salah. Such dangerous reliance on Salah was rattled following his injury in the Championship League. Despite his recovery, the other players failed to regain their confidence.
I could not help but notice how Senegal and Nigeria players looked chilled, relaxed, and happy whereas our Egyptian players were tense, stiff, and almost miserable. The Egyptian team had almost no mental coaching. It arrived stressed and preoccupied with the uncertainty of Salah’s readiness for play after his injury. There is nothing more destructive for any player than distrusting his own ability.
Our collective enchantment with Salah was unhealthy and unproductive. Football is a group game and cannot be won by relying on one star. We have unnecessarily piled pressure on Salah and managed to turn the blessing of having a gifted player to a curse that ruined our collective ability to fight and win. That is certainly notSalah’s fault; it is ours—and ours alone—to rectify.
We can blame everyone from the coach and the football association to the overall climate of corruption and nepotism, but let’s be honest: We lost the World Cup long before our team played any match in Russia. Egypt can do better, but first we have to learn how to work as a team. We do not need luck, but we need acres of hard teamwork. Let’s try to enjoy football again.