Reem Abulleil speaks exclusively to Egypt defender Ahmed Elmohamady ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Egyptians have waited 28 years to see the Pharaohs compete in a World Cup, and now it is finally happening, many wonder if this history-making group of footballers have more left in them to step up in Russia.
For a country which has won the African Cup of Nations a record seven times, one that witnessed a ‘Golden Generation’ of Mohamed Abou-Trika, Ahmed Hossam ‘Mido’, Mohamed Zidane and many more; Egypt have only made two previous World Cup appearances – the 1934 second edition in Italy, and Italia ‘90.
Ready to make their highly-anticipated return to the quadrennial showpiece, Hector Cuper’s men and their upcoming mission in Russia is all anyone can think or talk about on the Egyptian streets.
The players are the protagonists of every commercial airing this Ramadan – a month where Egyptians are glued to their TVs post-iftar – as World Cup fever has officially gripped the nation.
Thousands of travel packages have been booked by Egyptian football fans to the cities of Yekaterinburg, St. Petersburg and Volgograd, where the Pharaohs will contest their three group stage matches, and heart rates are already rising.
Egypt and Aston Villa defender Ahmed Elmohamady says the players are just as excited.
“I have to say we really can’t wait. Everyone wanted their leagues to be over so we could return to the national team. It’s not something that happens every year and all of the players are so excited,” Elmohamady tells Sport360.
“We’re in touch constantly, we’re on a Whatsapp group and we’re all really excited about our next reunion with the national team. We’re all psyched about the World Cup and we’re confident we can do something that will make our country happy and hopefully we won’t disappoint our people.”
Elmohamady is one of seven Egyptians playing in England, with Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, of course, the squad’s main star after enjoying a record-breaking season with the Reds. They’re a tight-knit group, according to Elmohamady.
“As you can see the number of players from Egypt playing in Europe has increased, so staying in touch with them is much better than before,” adds the 30-year-old.
“There are several players in England, so we’re talking to each other all the time, checking up on each other, I was talking to (Arsenal’s Mohamed) Elneny a few days ago to check on his injury. We’re all communicating well and we can’t wait until we are all together.”
Asked which player is the most active on their Whatsapp group, Elmohamady says with a laugh: “Amr Warda of course, he’s always been a chatter box, on Whatsapp and outside Whatsapp and everywhere, he never stops talking. He’s such a nice guy, he’s loved by everyone and he’s very funny. So he doesn’t stop talking and he’s the most active on the group.”
Landing in Group A alongside hosts Russia, two-time champions Uruguay and fellow Arab nation Saudi Arabia, many believe Cuper’s men have a legitimate chance of making it to the knockout stages.
While securing qualification to the World Cup seemed like the ultimate dream for Egypt, Elmohamady admits the team is far more ambitious than that.
“Before we qualified, people only cared about us actually booking our ticket to the World Cup. It was like let’s just go to Russia, play three games and come back. But of course all this changed after we qualified,” says the former Hull City player.
“Everyone on the street has high hopes for us, they don’t just want to watch us play three games, they want us to go further. As players, we have a goal to play more than three matches. To play three matches and getting knocked out wouldn’t be good for us.
“We are going in looking to make it as far as we can. It would be something big for our fans travelling with us to Russia and the people watching on TV. Hopefully we don’t disappoint.”
Cuper, Egypt’s Argentinean coach, has been heavily criticised for his defensive tactics but the fact remains he will go down in history as the man who ended the North African nation’s 28-year World Cup drought.
“We have a strong group of players, we have a coach of the highest quality in Mr. Cuper. I feel our level and our enthusiasm to do something big for ourselves and our country gives us a strong chance of advancing to the knockouts,” he added.
“Opening games are usually pivotal and they reveal the shape of the group. So I think the game against Uruguay will be the key for us to go deep in the World Cup. It will be a tough game of course but I feel we’re all going there with lots of optimism.”
Elmohamady hails from Basyoun, the same town where Salah was born, in the governorate of El Gharbia. They go way back and Elmohamady admits he’s not surprised by his compatriot’s incredible achievements with Liverpool this season.
Salah broke the Premier League record for goals scored in a 38-game season, amassing 32 in his first year at Anfield and has netted 44 goals across all competitions so far this season.
He scooped countless awards, including Premier League Player of the Season, PFA Player of the Year, FWA Footballer of the Year, and African Footballer of the Year.
Liverpool fans have dubbed him ‘The Egyptian King’ and Elmohamady says Salah is inspiring a whole generation back home.
“Players his age and younger than he is look up to him and consider him a role model,” said Elmohamady. “He is the best role model for them right now. Everyone now wants to go and play football abroad. And that is great, be it for the player himself or for the national team.
“From a behaviour point of view, Salah is a very respectable person off the pitch, very disciplined, and that helps him on the pitch. He is able to perform well on the pitch because of that discipline. He’s a great example to follow.”
Egypt’s preparations for the World Cup included two friendlies contested in March — a 0-1 loss to Greece and a 1-2 defeat to Portugal, where Salah opened the scoring and Ronaldo netted a double in the dying moments of the game.
The two performances raised numerous question marks over the Pharaohs’ form but Elmohamady sees lots of positives coming out of those games.
“Despite those two losses, we gained a lot from those matches. It had been more than three years since we last faced a European side. So it’s good that we started to get used to playing European teams, and big teams like Portugal. It removes the fear factor you have when facing such teams,” he explains.
“In friendlies, the last thing you think of is the result. Mr. Cuper was trying out different players during those games, so there are usually a lot of different objectives with those friendlies. I believe they were two very important games for us.”
More recently, Egypt drew friendly games against Kuwait and Colombia, and lost 3-0 to Belgium – all in the absence of Salah, who continues to recover from a shoulder injury picked up during the Champions League final last month.
Egypt lost one of their goalkeepers to injury in April after Zamalek’s Ahmed El-Shennawy hurt his left knee and was ruled out of the tournament. That leaves the 45-year-old Essam El Hadary as Egypt’s first-choice ‘keeper and captain.
The three-time African Cup of Nations winner will bring a wealth of experience to a squad which includes many players who haven’t competed a lot in front of big crowds, especially with the ongoing stadium ban imposed on the Egyptian Premier League.
“Of course the experience factor is important in every team. In the most recent African Cup of Nations we competed in, there were only three or four players on our team who had ever played in an AFCON before: Hadary, Fathy, Abdelshafy and myself,” said Elmohamady.
“So of course experience helps. And now that these players have played in Africa and made the final (in Gabon 2017), that added to them a lot of experience.
“Add to that the fact that a lot of our players compete in big leagues, there’s a group playing in the Premier League like Salah, Elneny, Hegazy and Ramadan. All this adds to the team.
“Of course our captain Essam El Hadary, he is always in touch with the players, he talks to them, he transfers his vast knowledge and experience through his talks with them before matches. I believe we have a lot of experience in this team, it’s enough that our goalkeeper is 45 years old which is huge for us. We learn a lot from him.”