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Ramadan Tales E5: The Fasting and the Furious – Egypt’s Historic 1998 AFCON
It was perhaps the most uncertain July in Egyptian football history. The year was 1997, and the Pharaohs had just failed to reach the World Cup for the second consecutive time. They were also on the verge of the then-unthinkable… not even qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 20 years.
And even if they did qualify, it was poised to be a disaster. With a coach in Mahmoud El-Gohary supposedly past his prime, no one to score goals with Hossam Hassan seemingly past his, and remaining stars from the team that made the 1990 World Cup in Italy – such has Hany Ramzy – aging and in the twilight of their careers.
Fast-forward to the end of the month, July 27 to be exact. Egypt helplessly awaits the final qualifier of Group 3, needing Morocco – already qualified and with nothing of consequence to play for – to get a result against Senegal.
The Atlas Lions would deliver, winning 3-0 at home and seeing the Pharaohs onto the 21st Africa Cup of Nations.
What would ensue is one of the greatest and most unlikely stories in the history of Egyptian football…
Having won just two of it’s previous seven friendlies in the build-up to the tournament in Burkina Faso, it appeared that Egypt was just there to help fill the field of 16 teams.
Reports suggested that the team was fasting in observance of the month of Shawwal, when Muslims often follow-up their obligatory Ramadan fast with optional fasting. Although to the common, sarcastic Egyptian at the time, not even help from up above could help this team, one that barely even made it to the tournament.
Mozambique would offer the perfect start for the confidence-seeking Pharaohs, who won 2-0 on the back of two Hossam Hassan goals in what would prove to be a launchpad for both his and the team’s historic run.
Next up were Zambia’s Chipolopolo, an always formidable Nations Cup contender still rebuilding after a tragic plane crashed that killed most of the team in 1993.
Not only did the Pharaohs build on the Mozambique win, they handed Zambia what was its worst-ever Nations Cup defeat, a 4-0 shellacking led by a Hossam Hassan hat-trick.
With Egypt’s quarter-finals place now booked, they would play-out a stale, scoreless 89 minutes against Morocco, who were also already through to the knockout stages.
That would mean Egypt wins the group, except for one thing… football is played for 90 minutes.
In that ever-important 90th minute, Egypt’s iron defense would allow its only goal of the tournament, an impeccable bicycle kick from Moroccan legend Mustapha Hadji. The goal gave the Atlas Lions the group summit, and a difficult quarter-final test against defending African champions South Africa, which they would go on to lose.
Egypt’s quarter-final with Ivory Coast would go to penalties, and the biggest test of character yet for the budding champions. They would pass that test, with heroics from goalkeeper Nader El-Sayed and the calm boot of Zamalek legend Hazem Emam.
Hosts Burkina Faso awaited Egypt in the semi-finals. And Hossam Hassan awaited the Burkinabes, scoring twice, including one of the prettiest goals of the tournament in a link-up with Emam that left the hosts bedazzled and bewildered (seen in the video at the bottom of the page).
Perhaps fittingly, it was defending champions South Africa that remained the only hurdle between the Pharaohs and destiny. Most pundits fancied the Bafana Bafana, who were on their way to the FIFA World Cup later that year.
More steely defense from Samir Kammouna, Hany Ramzy, and Medhat Abdelhady, along with gloriously well-drilled set piece plays – a trademark of the El-Gohary era – meant Egypt would emerge with its fourth-ever Nations Cup crown in convincing fashion.
A lasting legacy
The Pharaohs’ 1998 Nations Cup triumph catapulted them into the era of modern football. It meant European transfers for players like Yasser Radwan, Mohamed Emara, Samir Kamouna, and Hazem Emam.
It brought Egypt level with Ghana for the most Africa Cup of Nations titles at the time (4).
Hossam Hassan would remain in Egypt, but finished as the tournament’s joint top-scorer, netting seven goals along with South Africa’s Benni McCarthy.
It meant a long-term deal with cutting-edge kit maker Puma, including factories in Egypt and hundreds of new jobs.
It marked the first time ever a man would win the Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach, an achievement by El-Gohary perhaps equaled only by his guiding the Pharaohs to the World Cup eight years prior.
It was also the first time a North African nation won Africa’s showpiece event on West African soil.
Egypt would go on to play in its first-ever FIFA Confederations Cup and was the only team that champions Mexico could not beat.
In fact, that match was a microcosm of the fight, grit and determination that Egypt team had.
Down 0-2 with just 10 minutes left, in a rainy, always-menacing Azteca Stadium in Mexico City… Egypt, playing with 10 men after Yasser Radwan’s controversial send-off, somehow found two goals in them to steal a point. By the end of the match, “olé!” chants were ringing out from the home crowd every time Egypt touched the ball.
Choosing Egypt’s best-ever team is a highly subjective task, but a fair examination of this squad from top to bottom reveals that it may very well have been the country’s greatest yet. At the very least, the most balanced, with a silky smooth midfield and a physical, organized defense that today’s Pharaohs only dream of matching.
If nothing else, that 1998 team taught us one thing… never bet against a wounded, fasting Pharaoh with its back against the wall.
- Episode 4 – Emmanuel Amuneke – From Zamalek to Barcelona
- Episode 3 – Al Ahly defy odds against European giants Real Madrid, Roma
- Episode 2 – The short-lived Zaki-mania
- Episode 1 – Al Ahly and Zamalek fight over Lamie