OPINION: Maligned Cúper is an Egypt success
A year after Egypt’s 2-0 victory over Ghana in the second round of World Cup qualifying Group E matches, Omar Morsy takes a look at how Héctor Cúper has fared at the helm of the Pharaohs so far.
Exactly twelve months ago to this day, I put together a little opinion piece about how Héctor Cúper was the right man for the Egypt national team job, in the wake of growing criticism for the Argentine. As I type this, one year later, the calls for Cúper’s dismissal have reached deafening levels, but all of the detractors are conveniently looking past one key point- Héctor Raúl Cúper has achieved every single objective assigned to him since his appointment in 2015.
Let’s start with the negatives, to stick with the current theme among most supporters and pundits. Egypt are one of the dullest ‘big’ sides in terms of attack, and have virtually relied on a sole outlet for their offensive output in qualification: Liverpool’s world class Mohamed Salah. The mercurial 25-year-old has already cemented his place in Egyptian football history as he led the Pharaohs to their first World Cup in 28 years (and yes, that is exactly how Cúper critics are putting it; only Salah deserves credit for qualification). The truth of the matter is, in this formation, any forward will have to endure the endless torture of chasing down the opposition as they move the ball around, while at the same time having to battle to get on the end of launched long balls while being outnumbered two or three-to-one by defenders. Furthermore, the fact that Egyptian forwards have been in shockingly bad form for over two years while donning the national team’s colors has not helped matters whatsoever. On the left-hand side, Ramadan Sobhi – or Mahmoud Trezeguet – have been shackled by defensive duties to help the ageing Mohamed Abdel-Shafy, which limits their attacking potential.
In midfield, Tarek Hamed’s 2016 form seemed to disappear overnight as the new year beckoned, with the 31-year-old turning in shocking displays at every turn. Mohamed Elneny has not escaped the wrath of millions of irritated Egyptians either, with many questioning his quality as a distributor of the ball. That, coupled with Cúper’s reluctance to build slowly from the back after winning the ball, has underlined the deficiencies of the two holding midfielders. Abdallah El-Said has provided important goals and assists over the past few months, but his unwillingness to cover enough ground and disinterested demeanor have drawn many a scream of frustration from spectators. In addition, the team selections have ranged from slightly puzzling to downright bewildering at times, with several deserving players being overlooked by the coaching staff. Egypt’s 1-1 draw with Ghana in the group’s final game – admittedly a dead rubber – saw a significant shake-up, but it would be wildly premature to claim that we can expect to see major changes in the squad at this point.
A majority of fans and pundits alike are yearning for the ‘golden days’, where Egypt would ‘outplay the opposition’ and put together ‘beautiful’ moves on the pitch, and while I personally don’t remember the perfection people are claiming was achieved, I can agree that the current team is not exciting to watch whatsoever. Sadly, that’s the extent of my agreement with critics. As an Egyptian supporter, I have endured endless heartbreak when it came to World Cup qualification, and while the three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations triumphs in the latter half of the last decade were certainly cause for celebration, nothing could ever soothe the pain of having to choose a foreign team to root for at the World Cup every four years.
Over and above, the humiliation Egypt endured from the spring of 2010 through early 2015 was too much to handle. One cannot deny the enormous effect that political turmoil and league cancellations had on the national team, but embarrassments like the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying loss to Central African Republic (a nation that has almost always failed to rank in the top 100 FIFA teams) and the 6-1 smashing at the hands of Ghana in 2014 World Cup qualifying underlined how far Egypt had fallen into footballing obscurity.
But enough dwelling on past failures- let’s go over the past 30 months and try to look at Egypt’s results through an objective lens, not clouded by any unrealistic delusions of grandeur or unreasonable expectations. Cúper took the reigns of a team in total turmoil in March of 2015, coming off of the back of a miserable failure to qualify for that year’s Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea under the ‘tutelage’ of Shawky Gharib, taking zero points from four games against Tunisia and Senegal. Egypt put a dismal 2014 behind them, as they racked up five wins in six games the following year.
Fun fact: Cúper’s four straight wins at the beginning of his reign is the best ever start for any Egypt manager in the 21st century.
A 1-0 loss to Jordan in a terribly-planned friendly fixture contested by local-based players cost the Pharaohs valuable ranking points, before the manager restored his side’s momentum with two friendly wins. The former Inter and Valencia boss underwent his first ‘real’ test in March 2016, when he went up against Nigeria in a double header that was almost definitely going to determine which side would be participating at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. A nervy 1-1 draw in Nigeria had the Egyptian populace on edge, before a tightly-fought win in Alexandria a few days later eliminated Nigeria from qualifying, and left Egypt with the relatively straightforward task of avoiding a heavy defeat in Tanzania to make their first AFCON appearance since 2010 (Salah scored a brace to seal a win anyway).
A draw against Guinea and a 1-0 loss to South Africa in the end-of-summer friendlies naturally brought back some of the negativity surrounding the Pharaohs – and especially their manager – ahead of a tricky 2018 World Cup qualifying group containing 2010 quarterfinalists Ghana and an up-and-coming Uganda side led by promising manager ‘Micho’. Nevertheless, Cúper duly delivered, overseeing a 2-1 win away to underdogs Congo, followed by a thrilling 2-0 win over Ghana that went a long way towards exorcising the ghosts of the 2013 drubbing in Kumasi. At that point, many started considering what was previously unthinkable: could Egypt finally reach the World Cup again? It was at that point that I wrote my initial piece in defence of Cúper, urging fans to set aside their grievances over style and focus more on the substance, seeing as more attacking Egyptian teams had tried and failed to reach the biggest stage in international football since 1990.
Ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon, there was little optimism as to how Egypt would fare in the tournament, with many pointing to sheer luck as the main reason for Egypt’s return to the tournament after a seven year absence as well as the team’s untypically strong start to their World Cup qualifying campaign. A 0-0 draw with Mali in Egypt’s opener only compounded these concerns, with the team’s ineffectiveness in front of goal being severely criticized. The 61-year-old would not budge from his beliefs however, and his faith in his system was rewarded with three consecutive 1-0 wins over Uganda and Ghana in the group stage, as well as Morocco in the quarterfinals.
Fun fact: At the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, Cúper led Egypt to their first win over Morocco in 31 years.
The ageless Essam El-Hadary then pulled off a legendary display against an impressive Burkina Faso side to pull Egypt into the tournament final, a feat that would have been laughed off by anyone in mid-2015. A heartbreaking loss to Cameroon in the dying seconds saw Cúper continue his awful record in finals, but there were no doubts about it; the man surpassed his AFCON-related goal set at the time of his appointment, and Egypt were back in business, no matter how unattractive the style was. At this point, Egypt had shot back into the top 20 in the FIFA rankings, for the first time in six years. To put that into perspective, Egypt were languishing outside the top 50 in early 2015; the rise was undeniably meteoric.
Still, the doubts persisted, the criticism remained strong. Cúper’s ‘anti-football’ was slated by millions of Egyptians, many of whom were calling for his dismissal. To them, qualifying for the AFCON and reaching the final after seven years in football limbo was not important; all that mattered was the team’s inability to string together the ‘glorious’ passing moves of the past, and the ceding of possession to the opposition. As a result, when Egypt lost 1-0 to Tunisia in the first round of 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying games, the dissent was back to its previously colossal volume- it was time for #CúperOut.
Apparently a third loss in fifteen competitive games – including two matches against Ghana, two against Nigeria, one against Morocco and one against Tunisia – was an unforgivable sin. The absolute low point, however, was yet to come; a wasteful Egypt side were defeated 1-0 in Kampala, as the Cranes took top spot in Group E at the halfway stage. That was when all hell broke loose, in the truest sense of the word. Egypt were going to ‘bottle’ World Cup qualification while playing ‘terrible’ football, the very thing the critics were ‘putting up with’ (ha!) just for the results, so the only conclusion could be that Héctor Cúper was a complete and utter failure that had really overstayed his welcome. One is tempted to question where the detractors were on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations final, but that is beside the point.
As a result, the tension reached absurd levels on the November 5th, when the Pharaohs lined up to face Uganda in the return fixture in Alexandria. Despite Salah scoring inside the sixth minute to clinch the win, the narrow margin of victory was expectedly bemoaned (the host of easy chances missed by Egypt players was conveniently overlooked); it was all Cúper’s fault. All of a sudden, the fact that Egypt were tantalisingly close to sealing a terribly elusive World Cup berth was determined by many to be unremarkable, and by extension the manager’s results were ‘ordinary’. How times had changed.
Uganda held Ghana to a draw in controversial circumstances in early October, and Egypt’s home match against Congo suddenly became the nation’s most important fixture in over a quarter of a century. What many expected to be an easy and straightforward match unsurprisingly yielded arguably the most tense 90 minutes in Egyptian football history. Egypt sat back, encouraging Congo to push forward, and the hosts only broke the deadlock through talisman Salah with more than an hour gone. The Pharaohs then created a couple of easy chances to seal the win, but proceeded to miss them in typically wasteful fashion. A defensive lapse in the 86th minute lead everyone’s worst fears being realized- Congo equalised and silenced the 90,000 fans at the Borg El Arab stadium, as well as the tens of millions avidly following the match nationwide. What happened next is history, however, as penalty spot heroics from Egypt’s arguably greatest-ever player sealed the deal: Egypt had qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years.
I won’t go into too much detail with statistics, but I think it would be daft to leave out Cúper’s most intriguing numbers:
- Cúper has the best win record of any ‘long-term’ Egypt manager in history (63.3%), beating Hassan Shehata and Mahmoud El-Gohary
- Cúper has a goals conceded:games played ratio of 0.47, almost half of Hassan Shehata’s record (0.80)
- Cúper has kept 17 clean sheets in 30 matches, which corresponds to approximately 3 clean sheets every five matches
- Cúper has never lost a match by more than a single goal
In the end, it is not my intention to convince every single detractor to change their mind about Héctor Cúper; the differing opinions and preferences among supporters is part of what makes football so beautiful. This is merely my defence of Egypt’s current manager, who in just under three years has transformed Egypt from a pitiful mess into World Cup participants and a notoriously difficult team to beat. Does he have flaws? Absolutely. Does he deserve the ruthless bashing he is currently receiving? Definitely not. If you choose to hold him to a standard unlike that of any other Egypt manager in the team’s 90+ year history for some reason, that’s up to you.
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