Statistically, Egypt is most successful football side in Africa.
But when it takes on Uruguay in its World Cup 2018 opener, it will be the team’s first FIFA World Cup appearance in 28 years.
This presents something of a paradox as this tournament is, after all, meant to be a quadrennial showcase of the very best footballing countries on the planet.
Yet, despite the consistent success enjoyed by the Pharaohs – Egypt have won seven Africa Cup of Nations titles, at least two more than their closest rivals Cameroon – the team has been largely missing on the biggest stage, qualifying only twice previously: 1934 and 1990.
In the 28 years since its last World Cup appearance, Egypt won four of their total seven continental crowns – the golden age of Egyptian football.
Following the dour defensiveness of 1990, Egypt failed to qualify for USA 1994 after being knocked out by Zimbabwe in the first round of qualifying.
They were undone by an inopportune defeat to a George Weah-inspired Liberia in the qualifiers for 1998. Less than a year later, Egypt, inspired by the legendary Hossam Hassan, claimed a fourth Cup of Nations.
If Egypt shot themselves in the foot for 1994 and 1998, they probably had genuine reason to feel aggrieved during the 2002 and 2006 qualifiers.
But the disappointment of missing out in 2006 gave birth to an unprecedented run of dominance in Africa – three back-to-back Cup of Nations titles with a group containing talent such as Mohamed Aboutrika, Ahmed Hassan, Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Zidan and Hosny Abd Rabo.
It felt then like a seal of their greatness was required: a place at the World Cup for the first time in two decades. Ugly incidents, involving damage to the Algeria team bus, among other allegations and counter-allegations, followed when Algeria visited Cairo for the playoff.
But in the final tiebreaker, a play-off on neutral ground in Sudan, Algeria edged out Egypt 1-0.
Ghana would be their nemesis in 2013, mauling the Pharaohs in Kumasi 6-1, in one of the most inexplicable results in African football history.
So why has Egypt not been able to replicate their continental dominance onto the bigger stage?
“You know, it’s a bit of mystery. We don’t exactly know the reason,” Egyptian football journalist Eslam Magdy told Al Jazeera.
Legendary left-back Rabie Yassin, a key component of Egypt’s last World Cup appearance, blamed bad luck.
“There isn’t any national team that has a constant [level of] performance in the whole world,” said Yassin.
“Whoever achieves the full marks, even they have to fail at some point.”
It now appears that, having failed for so long, Egypt may be ready to enter an era of global relevance. Magdy has a theory as to what’s different this time around.
“To be more precise, we lacked a type of experience, as well as a bright star like Salah and having a lot of players abroad. This time we have a player who played in Basel, Chelsea, Roma, and now Liverpool. Another one who played in Arsenal [Mohamed Elneny]. We have experience that has helped us,” added Yassin.
Trust in the new generation
While the likes of Zaki and Mido, members of Egypt’s Golden Generation who played club football abroad, were the exceptions, there is a more worldly-wise complexion to the current crop: most notably Ahmed Hegazy and Ramadan Sobhi, who are fresh off debut seasons in the English Premier League.
Add to that Mahmoud ‘Trezeguet’ is a star in Turkey and Ahmed Elmohamady is a fixture at championship giants Aston Villa.
By opening up to the world, Egypt may have once more found its place within it.
For Yassin, there is no doubt that the dark days are over.
“I think this has reached an end and Egypt must be there in every World Cup. We have strong base of youth, and mental strength. That will help us.”
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