FIFA World Cup 2018: Mo Salah & Egypt's Route To Qualification

FIFA World Cup 2018: Mo Salah & Egypt's Route To Qualification
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    80,000 fans held their breath, but when they exhaled a new hero had been anointed.
    It was October 8th, 2017. The World Cup qualification match between Egypt and Congo was deep into
    injury time at the Borg al Arab [BORJ] stadium, close to the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria.
    The score was 1-1 and Egypt, known as The Pharaohs, were on the verge of fumbling their
    chance of qualifying for a first World Cup finals in nearly two decades.
    Despite The Pharaohs being the dominant force in African football for much of the past ten
    years, the World Cup had alluded them. They had come within one game of qualifying for
    the finals in 2010 and 2014, but politics, a revolution and a series of freak results
    had scuppered their chances. More on that later.
    A victory here at the magnificent Borg al Arab would have finally broken the curse.
    But a late equaliser from Congo silenced the crowd. Then, in the last seconds, Mohamed
    Salah won a penalty.
    [Arab commentary]
    Finally, Egypt had made it, and Salah was elevated to almost mythical status. But the
    story of Egypt's qualification for Russia 2018 doesn't begin here. It begins in Cairo,
    in 1989.
    Back then Egypt had an inglorious World Cup record since making a fleeting, one game visit
    to the 1934 finals in Italy. Between 1938 and 1970 they only competed in one qualification.
    But Italia 90 saw an Egypt team that contained Hossam Hassan up front and his brother Ibrahim
    Hassan in defence get to the final stage: a two leg play off against North African rivals
    Algeria.
    Algeria, with Lakhdar Belloumi pulling the strings from midfield, had been one of Africa's
    stand out team of the 1980s. The first leg in Algeria ended 0-0, but the second leg would
    lead to decades of controversy and be dubbed "the death match".
    In front of 100,000 people at the Cairo International Stadium Hossam Hassan's early goal saw Egypt
    qualify for Italia 90. But there was bad blood at the final whistle. A riot broke out on
    the pitch. In the melee Egypt's team doctor was attacked and lost an eye. Belloumi was
    blamed for the attack. Although he always denied involvement he was convicted in his
    absence and placed on Interpol's wanted list. Egypt went to Italy and were drawn in England's
    group, only narrowly missing out on reaching the knockout stages.
    Ten years later and the roles had been reversed. Egypt had gone on to dominate African football,
    winning three African Cup of Nations back to back under the tutelage of coach Hassan
    Shehata. The new generation was the best Egypt had ever seen. The team was built around the
    outrageously talented midfielder Mohammed Aboutrika and ably assisted by Essam el Hadary
    [E-SAM EL HATH-ARI] in goal, Ahmed Fathi, Amr Zaki and Mohamed Zidan..
    Algeria was very much an outsider when two again met in Cairo. But the bad blood from
    1989's death match persisted. The country's two presidents agreed before hand to pardon
    Belloumi for the 1989 incident in the hope of calming tensions. But Algeria's team bus
    was stoned on arrival in Cairo, injuring several players. Rival fans were attacked and the
    Egyptian press created a toxic environment. The country's dictatorial president Hosni
    Mubarak wrapped himself in the team's popularity and success and visited them before the crucial
    game. Egypt had to win by at least two goals to have even a chance of making it to South
    Africa.
    Again 100,000 filled the Cairo international stadium. It erupted when, with virtually the
    final kick of the game Emad Moteab scored and the match finished 2-0. That meant Algeria
    and Egypt finished equal on points and goal difference. Riots broke out in Algeria, Egypt
    and across Europe as a sudden death play off was arranged in neutral Sudan. But Algeria
    won 1-0.
    After the game, one of Hosni Mubarak's sons made a terrified phone call to an Egyptian
    TV channel recounting how he'd been attacked by Algerian mobs and accused the Algerian
    government of emptying its prisons so as to send convicts to Khartoum for the game (accusations
    that were ridiculed in Algeria). The games caused a diplomatic rift between Algeria and
    Egypt. Egypt's greatest generation had failed once again.
    But qualification for Brazil 2014 saw an even stronger group come together. Bob Bradley,
    the former USA coach, was hired with the express purpose of getting The Pharaohs to the finals.
    But almost as soon as he arrived a revolution broke out. The Arab Spring had swept across
    the region and Egyptians rose up in Tahrir Square to overthrow Mubarak's police state.
    Central to that uprising were the ultras from Cairo's two biggest clubs, Al Ahly, and Zamalek
    who were front and centre of the clashes that pushed the police back and Mubarak, ultimately,
    out of office.
    In the year that followed the league was suspended for long periods as Bradley tried to keep
    his squad of mainly locally based players fit with hastily arranged friendlies. And
    then tragedy struck on February 1st, 2012. At a game in Port Said between Al Masry and
    Al Ahly, 72 Al Ahly fans were killed when the stand they were in was rushed by hundreds
    of Al Masry fans. The circumstances around the deaths were extremely suspicious and a
    court later found that local security officials had colluded with ultras from the home fans.
    Many believe the attack was pay back for the role Al Ahly's ultras played in the revolution.
    Many of Bradley's squad had witnessed the carnage, some had held dying fans in their
    arms.
    Bradley would later recount what happened: "You know the story? Here's a young fan
    in a locker room. The fan says to Aboutrika: 'Captain, I always wanted to meet you.'"
    The fan died in Aboutrika's arms. In the immediate aftermath of the match, Aboutrika and several
    other Al Ahly players retired from football. And the league was cancelled too. Bradley
    put a traumatised squad back together, and promoted a young winger by the name of Mohamed
    Salah to the first team. Despite playing virtually no league football, Egypt dominated their
    group as Aboutrika and Salah dazzled, scoring six goals each, reaching the final play off,
    against Ghana, unbeaten. But everything fell apart in the first game in Kumasi when Egypt
    were blown away 6-1. Aboutrika retired, Bradley left and another World Cup was gone.
    When the Argentine coach Hector Cuper was hired as Bradley replacement, Egypt was a
    very different place. Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first free and democratically elected president,
    was removed in a military coup and replaced by Abdel Fattah el Sisi. Aboutrika, beloved
    by all Egyptians, was pursued by the new military regime for his perceived closeness to the
    Muslim Brotherhood and placed on a terrorist watch list. The countries ultras were also
    declared to be terrorist entities.
    The league returned but with the fans banned. And Mohamed Salah, who had left Egypt and
    found himself at Basel, Chelsea, Fiorentina and Roma before ending up at Liverpool, was
    now the main man, scoring goals for fun during the final group stage. But the crucial moment
    came at the Borg al Arab stadium. Salah would score the opening goal in that game before
    Congo's late equaliser. It was the first time the fans had been allowed it to a stadium
    in such big numbers since the revolution.
    But, just as history was about to be repeated, Salah stepped forward and stroked home the
    winning penalty. The stadium erupted, The Pharaohs would be on the plane to Russia and
    the curse of 1989's so called "death match" would finally be broken.
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