Egypt’s new generation could make them Africa’s best once again

Three successive AFCON title triumphs were followed by three successive failures to qualify for the tournament, in 2012, 2013 and 2015

Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Between 2006 and 2010 Egypt were the undisputed kings - or perhaps more suitably, Pharaohs - of African football. In that time, they won three Africa Cup of Nations titles back-to-back. Only seven years have passed since then, but that is now another era for Egyptian football. It’s ancient history as far as they are concerned.

Three successive AFCON title triumphs were followed by three successive failures to qualify for the tournament, in 2012, 2013 and 2015. They went from sitting atop the pile to falling off the pile altogether, looking in from the outside as their rivals enjoyed a party they were once the life of. This year, however, Egypt are back.

Appointed two years ago, former Inter Milan and Valencia manager Hector Cuper has led the Pharaohs back to AFCON, with their campaign set to get under way with a group stage match against Mali in Port-Gentil on Tuesday. Considered one of the favorites to win the tournament, their return comes with high expectations.

Indeed, Egypt are looking to pick up where they left off in 2010, putting the past seven years behind them. They have a new generation of players to help them do that, with only three players serving from the team that lifted the AFCON in 2010, with Ahmed Elmohamady, Mohamed Abdelshafi, Ahmed Fathi and the goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary included in Cuper’s squad for Gabon 2017.

That gives them an element of experience, but it’s talents like Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, Stoke City winger Ramadan Sobhi, forward Mahmoud Hassan and Mohamed Salah who are the most exciting, exhilarating aspect of Egypt’s national team right now. Their crop of young players is currently the most promising in the African game.

It’s this exuberance that could take them all the way in Gabon this month. Elney and Salah in particular are experienced performers at the top of the sport, but they still plenty to achieve. Subsequently, they will approach this year’s AFCON with a certain hunger. A hunger both to prove themselves and also to reestablish Egypt’s place at the top of African football.

It’s worth noting that while Egypt dominated AFCON for six years between 2006 and 2010 they failed to qualify for a World Cup in that time. In fact, not since 1990 have the Pharaohs made it to the most prestigious tournament in international football. That is a major blot on their record, one that they will be determined to erase in their efforts to make it to Russia in 2018.

But right now their attentions are held by AFCON and the challenge of rising to the top of the African game again. Salah is the star man for Egypt, billed as one of the tournament’s headline acts. The Roma and former Chelsea winger is charged with being the Pharaohs’ creator-in-chief in and around the penalty area, with Elneny giving them a solid base behind Salah in the middle of the pitch. In that duo Egypt have arguably the strongest foundation of any side at AFCON this year.

Unbeaten in their last 19 AFCON games, Egypt are currently on the longest unbeaten run in the competition’s history. That is little more than a statistical quirk having missed out in 2012, 2013 and 2015, but it does illustrate the pedigree the Pharaohs arrive in Gabon with.

Of course, they already did that by eliminating Nigeria in AFCON qualification and also beating Ghana in a World Cup qualifier in November. Cuper has made them difficult to beat, and that is a valuable trait to possess at a knockout tournament. They are considered among the favorites for a reason.

But great teams are defined by great triumphs at great events, and AFCON is undoubtedly a great event. Egypt are the most successful team in the tournament’s history, winning AFCON a record seven times. They have been building their next great team over the past seven years, using their absence from the top of African football to develop and grow. Now their new generation appear ready to notch number eight.

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