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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Mohamed Salah-led Egypt use Zurich camp as World Cup warm-up despite contrary weather conditions

Egypt national team are in the Swiss city ahead of friendlies against Portugal and Greece.

Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary during a training session in Zurich, Switzerland. Courtesy: Ahmed Kadry
Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary during a training session in Zurich, Switzerland. Courtesy: Ahmed Kadry

It felt more like Siberia, less Zurich in late-March.

The Egypt national team emerged on to the training pitch at the Stadion Letzigrund on Tuesday night sporting their winter wears: wooly hats and gloves were prevalent, so too long-sleeve shirts and tights under shorts. Fortunately, they visit Russia during summer.

The snow had began falling long before Egypt began training around 7pm, but it thickened as Hector Cuper gathered his charges in the centre-circle to relay instructions for the night, possibly even beyond.

For Hussein El Shahat, the midfielder who has taken Al Ain by storm since his January loan move from Fayoum’s Misr El Makkasa, this was a long way from the Garden City. He is experiencing his first call-up to his country. Welcome to international football.

The bulk of the squad arrived in Zurich from Cairo hours before. Some travelled from other locations, such as Mohamed Elneny. Representing Premier League side Arsenal, the midfielder made the short trip from his usual base in London.

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Mohamed Salah, the Liverpool forward and heartbeat of this Egypt side, did not meet up with teammates until Wednesday.

Like them, he had touched down in Zurich the previous day but, true to his widely documented warm-hearted nature, he made the journey east to Basel. There, he called in upon friendly faces from time spent long ago at the Swiss club.

Then he got down to work. Make no mistake: the matches against Portugal on Friday and Greece four days later may constitute friendlies, but this eight-day stretch in Zurich is viewed as integral to Egypt’s World Cup chances.

The country expects. Its people have endured a considerable wait. With doomed qualification campaigns consigned now to memory, Egypt contest football’s showpiece for the first time in 28 years.

Salah sealed their place, the forward displaying both his mettle and his Midas touch last October, deep into injury time against Congo in Alexandria.

The wild celebrations the converted penalty sparked still feel fresh. They are used to carry the players towards Russia, to focus the mind as preparations ramp up. In less than three months, Egypt take on Uruguay in Yekaterinburg. It is their first World Cup match in more than a quarter of a century.

Thus, the importance of the current camp has been stressed. There have been additions to the team's backroom staff, too, underlining the gravity of the quest. A French-English nutritionist; a renowned strength and conditioning expert, from Ireland; Argentine Ceviro Gustavo, to serve as assistant coach to compatriot Cuper.

Vastly experienced, Cuper has been a success since taking the reins in 2015, guiding Egypt last year to runners-up at the Africa Cup of Nations and then to the World Cup this summer.

He can be criticised for a perceived defensive approach, for the apparent dependence on Salah in attack, but the former Al Wasl manager appears well liked by his players and those around the national team set-up.

Mohamed Salah and his Egypt teammates in a Zurich hotel during their international break. John McAuley / The National
Mohamed Salah and his Egypt teammates in a Zurich hotel during their international break. John McAuley / The National

This week, he praised the squad for their determination and desire, for their indomitable spirit. They boast a pleasant blend of local-based players and the 17 professionals plying their trade abroad.

In Zurich, the players have come together and they share a common goal. On Wednesday, they convened for their team meeting just after midday, then had lunch and some downtime - a late-afternoon gym session was “optional” - before training took place from 6pm onwards. Dinner was scheduled for 9.30pm, with players expected to return to their rooms by 11pm.

It is structured and adhered to. Portugal on Friday provides immediate motivation, Russia the long-term. The European champions, with Cristiano Ronaldo at their head, form a formidable test. There is a sense that, achieve a good result, and the whole World Cup outlook receives a significant boost.

The global finals are almost upon them. Even amid the frost and the freeze at the Stadion Letzigrund, Egypt can feel it.