The Aston Villa defender speaks to John McAuley about helping Egypt reach a first World Cup in 28 years and how he wants to create new memories for the country
Ahmed Elmohamady interview: Egyptian stalwart on Salah, the pain of missing out on past World Cups and plans to make new memories in Russia
Ahmed Elmohamady remembers it well. How could he not?
He remembers the crush of conceding in the final minute, then the relief of being given an almost instant reprieve. He remembers the rush on the pitch, the rush of emotion, the players, the staff and supporters celebrating the award of the penalty. He remembers quickly thinking “but we haven’t scored yet”.
He remembers collecting the ball amid the bedlam and passing it Mohamed Salah, his team’s designated penalty taker. He remembers telling his teammate, just about above the din on the field and the delirium all around Borg El Arab Stadium, “all the best, good luck,” because “it was a difficult time for him”. He remembers Salah’s concentration. “We all know how good he is.”
He remembers the elation when the ball hit the net, since there was no time for Congo to respond, that “you know the game’s gone”. He remembers the “crazy” scenes that followed, the people on the pitch and the former players in the dressing room afterwards, piling in to pass on their congratulations. He remembers the singing and the dancing on the tables, triggered by captain Essam El Hadary. “Always the leader."
He remembers the fans camped out at the hotel afterwards, the car horns blaring, the flags and the glowing faces. He remembers seeing family and friends, who and been at the stadium to witness Egypt finally do it. To finally reach the World Cup.
Elmohamady remembers it all because he remembers the pain of missing out in 2010, of the 1-0 defeat in the play-off against Algeria in Sudan seven months earlier, of the “big, big disappointment because that group really deserved to be in the World Cup”.
He remembers because he wants his young children, Malik and Nejma, to one day remember that Daddy represented their country on the greatest stage, remember it so well they can talk at school about how proud they are of him.
He remembers it all because he wants to make his whole country proud.
“It’s been 28 years since Egypt was there, so everyone gave everything to do it,” Elmohamady says, as his country gets set for Friday’s Group A encounter against Uruguay, their first World Cup match since 1990. “From the manager to the kitman, everyone working so hard to make the World Cup.
“Because it means a lot for the fans and the country as well. It’s a huge thing to be honest. For everyone here in the national team and for me especially.”
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An international for the past 12 years, Elmohamady experienced the hurt of Algeria in 2009, then the struggle and failure to make 2014. He used it during qualifying for Russia, summoned something extra in their penultimate match against Congo in Alexandria, when Salah’s opener was cancelled out late on and then added to late, late into the night.
“Still, we had the character in the players and the belief we could do it and qualify among our fans in the stadium and all of Egypt,” the Aston Villa defender says. “All these things helped us to get over it and to do it.
“I know it was difficult, but everything that comes after difficulties and hard work means it’s good, means it’s nice. And you can see the feeling, how happy you’d made the fans in the stadium and the millions outside watching in the streets. It was so nice to give them that and good for the country to see people happy. Especially after what had happened before.”
Plenty good had happened before, but not this. Elmohamady was a member of the team to win a second and third successive African Cup of Nations, clinching the continent’s premier prize between 2006 and 2010. As it stands, Egypt have taken that title a record seven times, but have rarely made their mark on the global stage. They have two previous World Cup appearances, in 1934 and 1990. Twenty-eight years felt that and much more.
“It’s different. African Cup of Nations, you’re used to winning, it’s a normal feeling,” Elmohamady says. “But the World Cup, we didn’t qualify for 28 years. We want to know this feeling, when you qualify how happy it can make you, how we can celebrate, everything. All these things were on our mind, so it was a great thing.”
Elmohamady’s mind stretches back to 1990, like most Egyptians. He was only three, but he has seen Magdi Abdelghani’s penalty against the Netherlands time and time again. It remains the his country's only World Cup goal. The intervening tournaments have been watched from afar, when Zinedine Zidane struck twice in the final for France in 1998, or when Brazil’s Ronaldo ruled in 2002.
“All the time you’re watching you’re thinking Egypt can be there, Egypt can be in the World Cup because sometimes you can see the levels they play,” Elmohamady says. “We can be there, we have players who can play at this level. Of course we can. We’re there now, so we have to make sure we're ready because it’s going to be tough.”
Elmohamady describes a group containing Uruguay, hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia as “OK, not difficult, not easy”. He recognises Friday’s initial encounter at the Yekaterinburg Arena will be “massive”, but that a strong result could set up Egypt for a run at the knockout stages.
They will be well supported there and throughout the tournament, both at home and by the swarms who seem to have relocated to Russia for the next two weeks at least. Presumably, that first national anthem will be when it really hits home. Although, for the most part, Elmohamady has kept those thoughts at bay.
“Not yet, not yet,” he says. “But it will come. When you go there and feel the atmosphere around it’s going to be huge. We think about it sometime, imagine the picture. Because it’s the biggest thing in the football world. We’ll make sure we’re ready. We’re all looking forward to it and all the experience.”
It is not only the players. Elmohamady, 31, has been player and travel planner, ensuring friends and family have their tickets, that their itinerary is correct and hotels sorted. Malik, Nejma and wife Hiba will be the last people he speaks to outside of the squad before he walks out to face Uruguay, just briefly on FaceTime, for them to wish him luck, as is routine.
Then it is up to Elmohamady and his teammates to represent their country, to make them proud. There is guidance from Hector Cuper, too, a manager Elmohamady rates as “one of the best we’ve had in the national team”. Egypt’s young group learns from the Argentine, listens to his advice.
Elmohamady and El Hadary are other exemplars, two of the team’s most experienced players. At 45 and five months, goalkeeper El Hadary is set to break the record for oldest player to play a World Cup match and, at 14 years his junior and roommate, Elmohamady enjoys constantly reminding him.
“Every time I look to him I just feel young,” he jokes. “He’s a great player, what he’s done through his career is unbelievable. And he’s an example for every one of us to work hard, make sure you believe, that age is just a number. For him, its unbelievable to play in the World Cup: oldest goalkeeper, oldest player, he beats all the records.”
Egypt’s chances of beating Uruguay increase substantially should Mohamed Salah be passed fit. The forward, a star for country and club Liverpool, excelled during qualification and is regarded as his national team’s one genuine game-changer.
“The manager always says to make sure we play as a team,” says Elmohamady, who knows Salah well having grown up in the same Basyoun. “But, of course, when you have a player like Salah in the team, it’s going to be massive for us. Everyone helps him in the game, he helps the team as well; he works as hard.
“He’s a very, very good guy outside the field as well. It comes from the team spirit. It’s been great. We need him. We’re all working together and it’s good for the team to have a player like him.
“He deals with the pressure very well. Because he keeps himself away from everything. He always talks with the players, is always sitting with the players. When he plays, at any minute you know he can make a difference.”
That could be the difference between success and failure in Russia.
Asked what would constitute success, after the 28 years and all that he remembers and all that he wants to be remembered for, Elmohamady says: “To be honest, success has no limit. Hopefully we qualify from the group and whoever comes in the next stage we’re going to be 100 per cent make sure we go in the next one.
“We go in there, we have the big belief and make sure we can hopefully go as long as we can. Like always until now, we give everything.”