Egypt brace for a tough clash away to Ghana in the first leg of the World Cup qualifying playoff on Tuesday as they aim to qualify for the football’s most prestigious event for the first time since 1990.
The Pharaohs are aware they need to give their fans back home something to cheer about and, to do so, they will have a remove a tough Ghana hurdle in their to bid to end a 24-year wait for a World Cup appearance.
Football remains a source of pride for a turmoil-stricken country that is struggling to restore order in the aftermath of the army’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July.
Headline-grabbing news about regular clashes and death tolls are likely to make way for Egypt’s anticipated game against Ghana in Kumasi in the first leg of the World Cup qualifying playoff on Tuesday.
“For me, when I came to Egypt everyone talked about the dream of going to the World Cup,” said American coach Bob Bradley, who took over from highly-successful boss Hassan Shehata who, despite leading the Pharaohs to three consecutive Nations Cup titles, failed to end their lengthy World Cup drought.
“There have been all sorts of challenges in the year and half that I have been in Egypt. The country changes every day, but one thing that never changes is this dream to go to the World Cup, and every time we have a chance to get together with the players this is what we focus on.
“In Egypt, everyone speaks about their World Cup dream, regardless of their political background. Qualification could indicate that the country is moving forward.”
Egypt can take heart from a perfect record in the group-stage, during which they collected maximum 18 points from six games, but Ghana are far more tougher than the likes of Guinea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Ghana bagged 15 points in Group D to beat 2012 Nations Cup winners Zambia to a place in the final two-legged playoff, scoring 18 goals and conceding only three in the process.
Their brick wall at the back will be sternly tested against an Egypt side known for their counter-attacking abilities after defensive trio Jonathan Mensah, John Boye and Isaac Vorsah were ruled out of the game due to injuries.
“We did a lot of work. We studied Ghana well; we respect them, but at the same time we are a good team,” Bradley said of the Black Stars, whose last competitive meeting against Egypt ended in a 1-0 defeat in the 2010 Nations Cup final.
“We must be smart in Kumasi. We need to play with the right mentality; intellectually but with confidence.”
Ghana will also be without influential midfield duo Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mohammed Rabiu but their rich squad still includes the likes of Chelsea’s Michael Essien and Rubin Kazan’s Mubarak Wakaso.
“It’s a big game. It’s a game which is important to all Ghanaians and every member on my team is aware of that,” Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah said.
“Egypt are seven-time African champions and trying to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1990. That will give them some added boost going into the game.”
Egypt will be keen to erase the bitter memories of the last time they took part in a World Cup playoff.
In 2009, they forced a decider against Algeria after scoring deep into stoppage time to claim a dramatic 2-0 in Cairo, sparking wild celebrations in the football-mad country.
However, a sense of apparent complacency took its toll on the team, who slumped to a 1-0 defeat by Sudan to miss out on the 2010 South Africa finals.
Boosted by the return from injury of forward Mohamed Nagy ‘Gedo’, who scored the remarkable winner over Ghana in 2010, Egypt will almost be at full-strength in Kumasi.
Classy playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika, rock-solid defender Wael Gomaa and central midfielder Hossam Ghaly – the trio who were part of Egypt’s so-called golden generation – are aware it would be their last chance to experience World Cup football in the twilight of their careers.
The three men were the pillars of a powerful Egyptian side under Shehata but something is still missing in their list of honours.
“We promise all Egyptians that we will do our best to go to Brazil, especially following our good results in the previous round. We respect their players, but we are determined to win,” Ahly’s veteran defender Gomaa said.
By: Hatem Maher, Al Ahram