Egypt may have won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations more often than any other team, seven times, but when it comes to appearances a the FIFA World Cup, they are lagging behind their main African rivals. Only twice – in 1934 and 1990 – did the Pharaohs managed to qualify for the tournament, and Egyptian icon Ahmed Hassan believes the team will struggle to make it to Russia for the 2018 finals.
When it comes to the international scene, Hassan is a veteran at the top of the list. Not only did he win 184 caps, but he also played in 37 World Cup qualifiers and has been an assistant national team coach. After the Preliminary Draw for Russia 2018, FIFA.com spoke to the former international and asked him what he thought of the North African side’s chances.
“I think it will be very difficult this time to qualify for the World Cup,” Hassan said. “Many African teams have notably progressed, while we are having a slump in form. We still have a very good group of players, but we lack experience. Football is so unpredictable. Many times the underdogs outshine the fancied side.”
As one of the top ranked teams in the continent, Egypt received a bye into the second round of qualifying and will face the winner of the tie between Chad and Sierra Leone. If, as expected, the Pharaohs manage to pass that hurdle, they will be drawn into one of five groups of four, with the group winners qualifying for Russia. Hassan, who has been linked with a return to active football, said he had been very interested watching the impressive draw ceremony in St Petersburg: “I wanted to find out who our opponents would be.”
The midfielder, who played several seasons in Turkey and two seasons in Belgium with Anderlecht, before hanging up his boots in 2013 after playing two seasons for Zamalek, believes that, should Egypt make it through the group stage, it will not matter who they face.
He said: “It doesn’t really matter anymore who we would face. Sometimes you get a big team in a draw and then you find out that there are less fancied sides that pose a greater threat. I personally have no preferences over who we should avoid in the draw.”
World Cup regrets
Hassan collected a huge number of accolades during his lengthy career, including four AFCON crowns, league titles in Belgium and Egypt, the Turkish and Belgium Cups, the CAF Champions League and the CAF Super Cup. He was twice voted as the AFCON Player of the Tournament (2006 and 2010) and in 2010, when he was already 35, he was named as the best African-based player by CAF. Although 37 of his 184 internationals came in World Cup qualifiers, he never had the chance to play at the finals themselves. “That was disappointing, because I always hoped my efforts and the records I achieved would be crowned with a World Cup appearance”.
However, he draws some consolation from the fact that he holds the African record for qualifiers played. “I feel proud of that and when I retired, I realised even more how important such figures are. This is down to hard work and high ambitions, which were the main reasons for me carrying on that long.”
To this day, he can’t explain why he never made it to the World Cup with the Pharaohs. “I don’t think there were any technical reasons for our failure to reach the World Cup,” he said. “At times we were the best team on the continent under former coaches Mahmoud El-Gohary and Hassan Shehata and we deserved to go to the World Cup. But at the end we can only say this is football, it doesn’t always give you what you really deserve.”
But even without an appearance at the World Cup, Hassan still has his fair share of famous moments on the road to the event – good and bad ones: “The greatest World Cup match for me was against Algeria in Cairo in 2009 when we needed to win by a two-goal margin to keep our hopes alive of reaching the 2010 finals in South Africa. All the fans were behind us and there was much hype preceding the game. There was a sense of unity among all people”.
Emad Meteab scored the winner for the Pharaohs in the fifth minute of injury-time – a result that saw Egypt and Algeria finish equal in all respects, prompting a play-off. “That was my most disappointing match,” Hassan said. “We played a few days later in Sudan. It was very disappointing because we were finally very close to qualifying but we ended up losing the crucial match 1-0.”
Hassan scored ten goals in his 37 qualifiers. His best, he says, came in his first in Cairo in 1996: “We played Namibia in a qualifier for the 1998 finals and we won 7-1. I scored with a header from around the penalty spot. It was my best goal.”