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Analysis: Shawky Gharib, an appointment long overdue
All told, it’s a safe choice, as Gharib has successfully survived the pressure cooker of national team duty in the past, though mainly as an assistant. There’s little to suggest Gharib would be a failure, but what about the team’s potential under his guidance? Was he the right hire?
Gharib’s appointment has been a long time coming. In essence, he’s almost been a victim of his own success. He missed his opportunity within the typical coaching cycle due in part to Egypt’s success while assisting Hassan Shehata in the mid and late 2000s. As a head coach, he guided Egypt to its most successful international football appearance in history, a bronze medal at the 2001 U20 World Cup (then called the World Youth Championship) in Argentina. Typically, this would be enough to land an emerging coach the senior national team gig at the next managerial switch, but the Egyptian Football Association chose to go with Mohsen Saleh following the retirement of late legend Mahmoud El-Gohary. Saleh was fresh off of a league title with Egyptian giants Ismaily and had won both the Egyptian Cup and CAF Cup Winners Cup two years prior. It was hard to argue with the FA’s decision.
On the heels of another World Cup qualifying failure and a shocking group stage exit at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia under the tutelage of Egyptian managers, the FA dismissed Saleh and decided his successor would not be from Egypt. They somehow arrived at Marco Tardelli, a former Italy international with little managerial experience and a poor resumé to boot. He did, however, fit FA president Dashoury Harb’s self-imposed credentials for the job: He was A) foreign, and B) cheap. Because of this intial requirement, Gharib never had a chance.
Gharib’s crowning achievement is undoubtedly Egypt’s bronze medal at the aforementioned 2001 U20 World Cup. However, Gharib’s detractors argue that his team suffered a 7-1 loss to hosts Argentina in the same tournament, and that he enjoyed one of Egypt’s most talent-laden crops of youngsters ever. Gharib’s squad boasted the likes of future senior team internationals Hossam Ghaly, Mohamed Sobhi, Mohamed Shawky, Wael ‘Cheetos’ Reyad, Amir Azmi Megahed, Gamal Hamza, and Sherif Ekramy. The team also enjoyed the services of emerging striker Mido, who had just completed his transfer from Belgian side Gent to Dutch giants Ajax. Mido didn’t join the team in Argentina due to his senior team selection by El-Gohary for the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. That generation also included up-and-coming forward Mohamed El-Yamany, whose career was later cut short following an automobile accident.
However, many a manger has failed where Gharib succeeded. Having a talented squad is never a guarantee of success. Gharib’s team played some of the most attractive football Egypt fans have ever seen at the youth level, and did so with character and heart. Having garnered just a single point from its first two group matches during its bronze medal run – and facing a must-win scenario against Finland if it hoped to advance to the knockout stages – Gharib’s team gutted out a hard-fought 1-0 victory in a test of the team’s spirit and will, having just come off its aforementioned 7-1 shellacking to the host nation. The team then reeled off impressive wins against the Netherlands and United States before beating Paraguay in the third/fourth-place play-off.
But Gharib’s impressive C.V. didn’t begin in Argentina. As a player, he served the national team for 10 years (1979-1988), partaking in Egypt’s 1984 Olympic campaign in Los Angeles as well as its 1986 African Cup of Nations triumph. As a manager, he won a gold and bronze medal each in African youth competitions. He also reached two Egyptian Cup finals as Mahalla coach.
Some of Gharib’s finest work was done as Hassan Shehata’s top assistant during Egypt’s historic back-to-back-to-back Africa Cup of Nations title run between 2006 and 2010. Holding the title of head coach, Shehata is typically given most of the credit on the managerial end – and rightfully so – but Gharib was often purported to be Shehata’s tactical right-hand man.
Will he succeed?
Gharib is a tactically imaginative manager with ambition and charisma. His appointment was a logical one, even with other qualified candidates. His offenses pass both the eye and statistical tests, though his defenses sometimes left something to be desired. He’s also been through the ringers and understands the massive pressure that comes with the job. As Shehata’s top assistant, he lived through the highs of African Cup triumphs, and the lows of tense World Cup qualifying failures.
Having critically and meticulously witnessed two decades worth of ebbs and flows with Egypt’s national team, including World Cup qualifying failure after World Cup qualifying failure, my preference for Bob Bradley’s successor was for a defense-oriented El-Gohary disciple. There are two in particular that are actively managing at a high level, namely Al Ahly’s Mohamed Youssef and former Olympic team manager Hany Ramzy. Being the more seasoned of the two, my preference was for Ramzy to lead the Pharaohs. My next choice however, even before Hassan Shehata who too would have been a more-than-reasonable option, was Gharib. Youssef and Ramzy are both relatively young and will be mentioned again in conjunction with the Egypt job at some point in the future, making their omissions understandable.
Not only does defense stick out like a sore thumb as Egypt’s most glaring weakness, it’s also the backbone of nearly every team that qualifies for the World Cup. Four of the five teams that advanced to the 2014 World Cup from Africa allowed fewer goals in the group stage of qualifying than their play-off round opponents. By contrast, only three of the five that advanced had scored more than their playoff opponents in the group round. And the trend certainly did not start there. There is, in fact, a long history and more consistent correlation between teams that allow the fewest goals and qualifying for the World Cup, than between teams that score the most goals and qualifying for the World Cup. To further illustrate, Egypt was the highest scoring team in its 2002 and 2006 World Cup qualifying groups, but in each case allowed more goals than two other teams. Not coincidentally, they finished behind those two teams both times, and the winners were instead the teams that allowed the fewest goals.
Egyptian teams will always have the ability to attack and score aplenty. In terms of what he can control, whether or not Gharib succeeds as Pharaohs boss will instead depend on his ability to develop an effective and consistent backline. That not only entails employing tactics that best suit his personnel, but also adequately integrating promising, young, big, athletic centerbacks like Ahmed Hegazy and Rami Rabia. As with the vast majority of Egyptian managers, Gharib is well-versed in man-to-man marking schemes, but knows little about zonal systems. With the general shift to zonal defenses in the world of football impossible to ignore, Gharib will have to demonstrate the ability to adapt if he’s to fulfill what will be Egypt’s 28-year World Cup qualifying dream. Hany Ramzy, by contrast, has both played in and coached zone defenses, a major reason why I narrowly preferred him over Gharib.
Of course, Gharib will be handcuffed and face a fate not unlike Bradley’s if domestic football doesn’t return on a more permanent basis, no matter what kind of magic he pulls out of his hat.
All things considered, it was time for Gharib to get his shot at the top coaching job in the land. He put in his time and work, and did so with passion and gusto. He’s no rookie, and understands full-well the pressures and expectations that come with the position, as well as the cultural and political climates that make the Egypt post a unique challenge.