Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Next Level

Egypt lost to England 3-1 in a football friendly last night.  Before the match, my friends joked that I was a winner either way: whether Egypt won or England did.  As it turned out, Egypt's loss annoyed me.

When I am in England I support England - except when they play really badly and they do not deserve to win.  But put against my native country, my instincts were to support the underdog.

The first half of the match was excellent for Egypt, ending it one goal ahead and looking firmly in control.  England looked a weak team on their home turf in Wembley.  For a while, it seemed Egypt was going to make headlines the next day.  But the second half saw England make deft changes, score three goals seemingly effortlessly amid the Egyptian team's total acquiesence.  Hasan Shehata, the Egypt national coach put on our best strikers, throwing all we got at England.  But it seemed the fighting force had gone out of Egypt and England relaxed even more, basking in the warmth of its home crowd.

What really annoyed me was the Egyptian team's refusal to put the game beyond England in the first half, when England looked vulnerable.  And the team's collective psychological meltdown in the face of clinical, fast-paced English raids in the second half.  By the last ten minutes, the Egyptian players looked like they might want to take up a career in fishing.

I watched the match with my mates in a public spot in Cairo.  To start with, I noted almost all of us talking down our chances: "We are playing in Wembley, for God's sake, it will be well nigh impossible to win."  Most everyone just wanted an honourable performance and a decent result.  But after the match started and we looked like we weren't cowed by England, people's emotions shot up.  At Mohamed Zidan's stunning goal, we jumped up and released an amazing amount of pent-up aggression.  "Yes, that's how you do it.  You take the game to England and you do not fear them."

After the goal though, the Egyptian players started taking their time.  They remained in control but rather than keep up the attack, they dallied about.  In the second half, it began to seem obvious: our team was slow.  They kept taking ages to build up anything.  A friend kept pointing at an invisible line that we seemed unable to go past; England consistently frustrating us. 

The England coach, it turned out, had instructed his players to be more aggressive and to play faster.  He reasoned Egypt would crack under more pressure and speed.  He also put on new blood in the form of substitutes Crouch and Wright-Phillips.  The changes paid off.  The Egypt team went into some form of shock.

I know football is not a microcosm of the world.  I know that Egypt's problems on the pitch last night have nothing to do with its problems elsewhere.  But I feel that it is all part of the same narrative somehow.

Here we were the African Champions (three times in a row), the best footballing generation Egypt has ever produced, and yet we went and lost 3-1 to England.  Sure, England is a fine team, ranked 8th in the world, and quite possibly the next World Cup holder, but why could it not have been an upset?  Why could Egypt not have taken the game to England, why did we not put up the pressure, why were we slow, why did we go into some psychological state of loss?

Needless to say, everyone left on a low note.


Egypt manager Hassan Shehata said: "It was a serious game. An open game and we gave a good performance.

"The English team were successful in the second half. The second goal was offside but the referee was fair in the match.

"It was our first match since the African Nations Cup and we are preparing our team for a new system and a new style. We missed some chances which could have changed the result.

"Our changes were not as good for us as the England team's were. Also we have come from the African Nations Cup and our players were exhausted."

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