Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

While Egypt suffer without Mohamed Salah, Ramadan Sobhi is leading young Pharaohs all the way to the Olympics

Senior team has had an underwhelming start to Africa Cup of Nations qualifying while young side have booked their place at Tokyo Games

Ramadan Sobhi celebrates scoring their first goal in the Under 23 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final against South Africa. Reuters
Ramadan Sobhi celebrates scoring their first goal in the Under 23 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final against South Africa. Reuters

Their fortunes could not be more starkly different; and everyone in Egypt has taken notice that with a mixture of both frustration and jubilation.

The Pharaohs, minus the injured Mohamed Salah, opened their qualifying campaign for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations with two draws against continental lightweights: 1-1 against Kenya at home and a scoreless draw away to Comoros Islands.

Back in Cairo, the young Pharaohs reached the final of an entertaining Under 23 Cup of Nations in emphatic style, beating powerhouses Mali, Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa on route. Regardless of the result of Friday’s match against Ivory Coast, the squad has already secured a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, a tournament that attracts global attention and plenty of scouts from European clubs looking for potential signings.

“The manager [Hossam El Badry] is again using Mohamed Salah’s absence as an excuse … This is no longer acceptable although he is our number one star,” prominent football commentator Hassan El Mistakawi wrote in Wednesday’s edition of Cairo’s Al Shorouq newspaper.

“It is a question of teamwork … the lack of which is the real problem of the national squad, as well as the absence of some of football’s defence and offence fundamentals.”

The dismal performances of the senior team against Kenya and the Comoros Islands is just the latest in a long line dating back to the 2018 World Cup. Egypt, record seven-time champions of Africa, went to Russia with high hopes after qualifying for their first global finals since 1990, but were eliminated at the first hurdle after losing all three group matches.

In the summer, hosts Egypt comfortably finished top of their Cup of Nations group only to be eliminated by South Africa in the second round. That defeat led to the sacking of Mexican coach Javier Aguirre, and prompted authorities to force the resignation of the Egyptian Football Association. A five-man team appointed by Fifa now runs football affairs in Egypt.

The choice of El Badry to replace Aguirre was far from popular, with many Egyptians of the belief he was not of a high enough calibre for the top job. El Badry served three stints as manager of Cairo powerhouse Al Ahly, and his last job was director of Pyramids FC, another club based in the capital.

“He has had problems dealing with players wherever he went,” said football commentator Sabry Sirag, who noted El Badry had not held a top-level position on club football for a year before he was named Egypt boss.

“In contrast, Shawky Ghareib [manager of the U23 team] has the ability to bring the players together. They love him and see him as a father figure,” he added. “The senior team may have the spirit and will to win, but they effectively don’t have a manager.”

Criticism of El Badry has spilled over to social media, where critics are demanding his dismissal. But several Cairo dailies on Wednesday published near identical comments by an unnamed member of the EFA’s five-man board saying that sacking him would not serve the squad and that it was too early to judge his performance.

They also quoted El Badry as saying he did not have enough time to prepare and reassured fans that results would get better.

No one seems willing to acknowledge that Egypt is an average team that has occasionally experienced a surge in form

“No one seems willing to acknowledge that Egypt is an average team that has occasionally experienced a surge in form,” said Sirag, alluding to the three consecutive African titles Egypt won between 2006 and 2010. “We have a problem producing solid young players and the talent pool seems limited. At the same time, the lightweight teams like Kenya and the Comoros Islands are getting better and better.”

On the upside, Egypt’s impressive run in the U23 Afcon has signaled the rebirth of Ramadan Sobhy, a winger with stints at English clubs Stoke City and Huddersfield Town on his CV.

Sobhy, 22, failed to impress at either, but since returning to Al Ahly on loan last December, the club where he began his career and made his debut aged 16, has rediscovered the talent that marked him as one of Africa's brightest prospects.

He was able to showcase that form at the U23 tournament, using his deft dribbling skills, energy and towering physical presence to push the young Pharaohs to secure a berth in Tokyo.

“He has rediscovered himself during this tournament,” said Tarek Talaat, a commentator at Yallakora, a popular football news site. “A few months ago, he was dropped from the squad that played the African cup and now he is the captain of the team that’s going to Tokyo. He has been the tournament’s best player by far.”

Updated: November 20, 2019 06:11 PM

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