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Sports Features of Sunday, 6 October 2013

Source: Tetteh, Nii Ayitey

Opposition Watch: Meet the Pharaohs of Egypt

By Nii Ayitey Tetteh

The United States of America, simply known as America, is loved and loathed in equal measure. Loathe them all you want, but you can’t deny their ability to tell sentimental stories. They can take the even the most mundane issue, clothe it in ‘dramattire’ and elicit inspirational and passionate emotions from it. On October 15th; at exactly 16 hours GMT in Kumasi, when Ghana’s national football team, the Black Stars, engage their Egyptian counterparts, the Pharaohs, in the first leg of the final 2014 World Cup play off, it won’t be only Ghanaians, Egyptians and other Africans watching; Americans while going about their fast lives, will be keeping a keen eye on the result.

The coach of the Pharaohs, Bob Bradley is American and despite the political strife in Egypt, Bradley has stayed and guided the Egyptian team amid trying conditions and with the team on the cusp of World Cup qualification, American script writers have been put on the alert for documentaries and movies about an unlikely savior of Egyptian football; a bringer of hope and unifier of a nation divided. Those hyperboles, curiously, aren’t mine; those, more likely than not, would be the words used to describe the outcome of the tie, should Egypt qualify at Ghana’s expense. There is even a documentary on Bradley already. If you are Ghanaian like me, you might be wondering if Egypt, actually possess a stronger team that can eliminate Ghana? Answer dicey? Not to worry, here’s a unique guide into “Pharaoh-hood”.

A Rallying force

Egypt is sort of a football myth. African Champions for unprecedented 7 times and yet they don’t really have a presence beyond the borders of Africa. Upon all their dominance on the African continent, Egypt has only been to the World Cup twice; in 1934 and 1990 in Italy. Since then, it’s been one miss after the other. However, in qualifying for the next world cup in Brazil 2014, the Pharaohs have been ruthless. They qualified for the final play off with swagger; winning all 6 games in Group G, comprising of Guinea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, scoring 16 goals and conceding 7. Ironic, if you think about the fact that Egypt are more closer to qualification than ever, at a time when Egypt’s present circumstance should have rather derailed their efforts in qualifying for the first time in 24 years.

Dating back 2 years, when former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted and with its attendant violent scenes, Egypt has largely been unstable for football. In February 2012, Al Ahly fans were attacked by militant football fans, known as ultras of their rival, Al-Masry, in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. That event led to loss of 74 lives. League football was disrupted and when it returned, fans were banned from the stadia. It was only the African Club Cup competitions which kept elite sides like Ahly and Zamalek busy. This ensured that supply from both sides to the national team was not gravely affected. Even the Egyptian Football Association office was burnt down at a point. When conditions weren’t favourable for football, camps were organized outside Egypt in Doha and friendly matches played in Sudan and Lebanon all to keep the team active. Those measures clearly paid off and with an extra incentive to use football as a rallying factor to bring joy and hope to a sharply divided nation, the Pharaohs have not struggled for motivation. For the Pharaohs, world cup qualification is more than football, it is a national cause, a rallying force; surely, you wouldn’t want to bet against a team with such ambitions.

An American Pharaoh

Egypt’s moderate success despite all the odds, in the politically unstable country, is inextricably linked to one man. Bob Bradley, the man who has already inspired the documentary “American Pharaoh”. Bradley led the USA to the 2010 World Cup where ironically the Americans were eliminated in the second round by Ghana. Bradley was fired after the World Cup and he took a bold decision in accepting to coach Egypt. On September 24, 2011 he was outdoored and has since stayed and survived the political upheaval. Bob Bradley’s philosophy is reactive; to stay sound defensively by emphasizing pressure on the ball while players stay disciplined and compact in their positioning, as opposed to pushing up the field or attempting risky passes. It’s that thinking that has informed his preference for a 4-2-3-1 formation. In the lead up to the match up against Ghana, the Pharoahs have set camp early, calling up 27 players including 10 foreign based. Even Ahly’s Champions League commitments haven’t disturbed preparations as 11 of those called up have shuttled between both camps. So despite the absence of Ahly’s players, Egypt, dominated largely by Zamalek players still managed to comfortably beat Uganda in a practice game. Once Bradley has a full complement of his team, he will most likely set out his team in this manner. Young Ahly goalie, Sherif Ekramy, a great shot stopper, will definitely man the sticks. His quality has been further endorsed by Bradley who resisted attempts to recall veteran goalie El Hadry. Ekramy will be shielded on the left by Ahly’s Ahmed Shedid who combines great pace, energy and crisp crosses from the left side of defense; Veteran Wael Gomma will most likely partner Adam El-Abd of English side, Brighton, in central defense. , Ahmed Fathi and Hull City’s Ahmed Elmohamady will battle for the right back but Bradley may go for the experience of Ahly’s Fathi. In midfield, Bradley will be spoiled for choice. Mohamed El-Nenny of Swiss side Basel, and Lierse midfielder Hossam Ghaly, will provide a shield and break up Ghana’s attacks and initiate one of their own. Legend Mohamed Abou-Treika will surely play in the hole behind Amr Zaki while Egypt’s new sensation, Basel’s Mohamed Salah, will operate from the left wing; a position he has thrived in, scoring 6 goals in the qualifiers. Ahly’s Abdullah El-Saied will fill the last spot on the right.

This line up surely does not have the star quality of Ghana’s, but it is a cohesive group with a cause to fight for; ingredients that the Americans want to project as being engineered by one of their own if Egypt qualifies. Is that a realistic expectation? Will the movie be made? And what will the title be this time? American Milestone or American Mirage? It’s all a matter of time.

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(Culled from 90 Minutes )