Young talent sweeps Egypt into World Cup
CAIRO - Many of Egypt's footballers were not even born when the Pharaohs last played in a World Cup, but the new generation of young stars have steered them to Russia 2018.
Mohamed Salah, Ramadan Sobhi, and Ahmed Hegazy -- all 26 or under -- helped end Egypt's 28-year wait by beating Congo 2-1 on Sunday, catapulting them back on to football's biggest stage.
The tens of thousands of fans who packed into the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria had fallen silent in the 87th minute after Congo drew level at 1-1, a scoreline which would have at least delayed the home side's qualification.
But Liverpool midfielder Mohamed Salah, 25, scored his second goal from a penalty deep into injury time, sparking jubilation in the stands and parties on the streets until the early hours.
Salah is the Pharaohs' star man. Known for agility and speed, his transfer in June from Roma to Liverpool was estimated at between 45 and 50 million euros ($52 to $59 million).
"Mohamed Salah is the most important player of the team," said Khaled Baioumy, a sports columnist and a regular guest on television sports programmes.
"The quality of the current team is comparable to that of Western teams. Qualifying for the World Cup attests to that, but the competition will be very tough," said Baioumy.
- Communication is key -
Trained by Argentinean coach Hector Cuper, the team excelled at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, losing in the February final to Cameroon after a seven-year absence from the competition.
Standout 20-year-old Ramadan Sobhi is developing at Premier League side Stoke City, while Mahmoud Hassan, 23, nicknamed Trezeguet for his likeness to the French veteran, and Mahmoud Abdel-Moneim, 23, known as Kahraba -- "electricity" in Arabic -- have also shone in recent matches.
However, the team will face tougher challenges next year in Russia, according to Karim Said, a sports analyst on the channel ON Sport, and managing editor of the football website Yallakora.
"To face teams of that quality is totally different from facing African teams," he said, adding the new generation must prove they can form a solid team with a good understanding on the pitch.
Egypt's previous greats, such as Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat, knew each other well having played together for the same club in Cairo, Al Ahly.
But Said warned the current crop of young players, with 44-year-old captain Essam El Hadary in goal, could face communication problems because they play for different teams across Egypt, Europe, and the Gulf.
"The current team does not come from the same club, there is diversity, they are not together," he said.
"And playing among a national selection is completely different from playing in a club where contact is constant."