After a series of underwhelming early matches in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), Egypt kicks off its first match of the tournament against Nigeria on 11 January.
Historically, AFCON has been Egypt’s favourite tournament. Out of all of Africa’s national football teams, Egypt is the record-holder with seven titles, starting with the very first edition of the tournament in 1957, where Egypt was only competing against Sudan and Ethiopia, and ending so far with three consecutive and memorable wins in 2006, 2008, and 2010.
To many Egyptian millennials, football fans or not, the first title of that final streak is a collective memory of unmatched value. Egypt hosted AFCON five times: 1959, 1974, 1986, 2006, and 2019. When the championship took place in Egypt in 2006, the country witnessed one of the greatest moments of its football history.
The Cairo International Stadium had been renovated and expanded, the current squad was spangled with stars such as Mohamed Aboutreika, Mohamed Barakat, Emad Mote’eb, Ahmed Hassan, Ahmed Hossam (Mido), Wael Gomaa, Mohamed Zidan, Amr Zaki, and many more, whose teamwork and performance on the pitch inspired millions.
During that year, iconic chants were composed, women became far more likely to be seen in the stands of football stadiums, and Egypt won all but one match in the tournament (in which it drew), finally beating the then-formidable Ivory Coast, led by the legendary forward Didier Drogba, in a spectacular penalty shootout to win the title.
The team maintained the momentum caused by this stellar triumph under the leadership of the team’s beloved manager of the time, Hassan Shehata. With two more titles in Ghana and Angola in the following iterations of the tournament, Shehata’s era is now considered one of the greatest eras in Egyptian football, if not the greatest.
But to the lament of Egyptian football fans, Egypt has not managed to snag the title since that win in Angola over a decade ago. And though the team came close again in 2017, the players had to be content to return home from Gabon with silver medals.
One of the disappointments that hit fans hardest was when Egypt hosted the championship in 2019, the first time since their spectacular 2006 win. Despite the presence of a number of international football stars on the Egyptian National Team, the team barely made it past the group stage, suffering a loss against South Africa in the round of 16.
Ironically, the 12 years during which Egypt did not add any new silverware to its packed AFCON shelf, were the years of the rise of the Nagrig boy who grew up to be by far Egypt’s most internationally successful player of all time: Mohamed Salah.
Though the Liverpool forward was able to lead Egypt to the 2018 World Cup for the first time in nearly three decades, he has never been on the team for an AFCON win. This played a clear role in Salah missing out on winning the Ballon D’Or, football’s most prestigious individual award, for which he was shortlisted.
“I think this is the only thing that I haven’t won yet,” said Salah in the press conference ahead of Egypt’s match against Nigeria. “I was lucky that we got to the World Cup after 28 years, but I always say that I would love to win something with my country.”
Both Salah and Egypt’s current manager, Carlos Queiroz, have downplayed Egypt’s chances in the tournament, although both said the team will do its best. But commentators remember very well how a similar tone from legendary coaches of the national team, Mahmoud Elgohary in 1998 and Hassan Shehata in 2006, preceded what ended up being successful campaigns.