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OPINION | Héctor Cúper still the right man for Egypt job
Much has been made of Héctor Cúper’s managerial stint with Egypt, and the question remains: is he the right man for the job?
Critics will point to declining possession statistics, a less-than-positive approaches to matches and what they dub a ‘lack of identity’ and ‘unintelligible tactics’ as reasons why the Argentinean should not be in charge of the Pharaohs. Cupér’s coaching history does not help matters either; his inability to retain a managerial post for more than two years has been a feature of his 23-year career ever since his debut with Huracán in 1993, which came just months after he retired as a player at the same club.
Two consecutive UEFA Champions League final losses with Valencia (in 2000 and 2001) and a last-day capitulation in the 2002/03 Serie A title race with Inter have given the 60-year-old an unwanted ‘choker’ tag, but it draws attention away from the fact that reaching the final of Europe’s premier competition for two straight years is an impressive feat in itself. Recent stints at the likes of Racing Santander and Al Wasl further damaged Cúper’s reputation, and have provided ammunition for his detractors, but all of this is beside the point- Cúper has delivered since being appointed as Egypt manager in early 2015, and should not be the subject of the unfair attacks that are being launched by fans and pundits alike.
It would be outlandish to suggest Egypt were playing ‘attractive’ football before Cúper arrived; the team was more aggressive in attack, obviously, but there never was the brilliant, sweeping style many are supposedly reminiscing about. If anything, there was a tactical naiveté that reared its ugly head at vital moments throughout the years. The current system offers two main drawbacks: primarily, the ‘negativity’ so widely bashed in the Egyptian footballing community, as well as a perceived drop in performances from the team as a whole. In reality, the Pharaohs’ backline – which has been notoriously leaky in recent years – has conceded a mere three goals in its last eight competitive matches, which included clashes with Nigeria (twice) as well as Ghana.
In contrast, Egypt conceded 14(!) goals in eight matches in 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying, which saw results such as 4-2 wins over lowly Zimbabwe and Guinea, as well as the historic 6-1 capitulation to Ghana in Kumasi. One year later, Shawky Gharib’s charges failed to claim a single point in their home and away matches against Tunisia and Senegal in 2015 AFCON qualifying. To put this into context; Senegal subsequently crashed out at the first hurdle in the finals in Equatorial Guinea, while Tunisia were nothing special themselves and exited at the quarter-final stage in controversial circumstances.
Looking at the humiliating 4-3 aggregate defeat to Central African Republic in 2012, it would be easy to blame political unrest, but the reality of the matter is that Egypt lost at the hands of one of the worst teams in international football- unforgivable no matter the circumstances. Any comparisons between the current crop of players and Hassan Shehata’s three-time AFCON winners between 2006 and 2010 – who curiously failed to qualify for two World Cups despite their proclaimed ‘brilliance’ – would not be appropriate, given how much the national landscape has shifted. Gone is Egypt’s greatest ever player, Mohamed Abou-Trika, although the team has a new talisman in Mohamed Salah, who has ventured where no Egyptian has ever gone with AS Roma. Fortunately, his club form has definitely spilled over to the national team.
As far as the current setup is concerned, Cúper is the right man to lead Egypt back to their former glories (and World Cup qualification), even if it means sacrificing aesthetic appeal for results. Given the meagre resources at the manager’s disposal, a cautious approach that minimizes the risk of exposing his players’ numerous deficiencies is perfectly understandable. Regardless of your opinion of Cúper, it would be absurd to ignore the fact that he secured a clean sheet against the 2010 World Cup quarter-finalists with a centre-back pairing of Ali Gabr and Ahmed Hegazy; the former was woeful in Zamalek’s run to the 2016 CAF Champions League final, and the latter was rushed back from injury. Up front, there is a severe shortage of available quality strikers, with Bassem Morsy misfiring and Ahmed Hassan ‘Koka’ injured. Pragmatism is a completely warranted approach in football; as the adage goes, attack wins matches, defence wins titles.
Simply put: If Egyptians want to cheer their players on at the World Cup in Russia, as opposed to the latter watching the tournament from their couches as they have done for the past 26 years – and in the decades before Italia ’90 – Héctor Cúper must be given the support he needs to carry out his plan. If not, expect the usual mediocrity to make a swift return.