Republic of Congo v Egypt, Sunday 6.30pm UAE time, beIN Sports 1HD
Hector Cuper knows what a jinx looks and feels like. At 60 years old, the worldly manager will probably never again get a chance to put right his persistent and painful habit of finishing second in elite club football.
A silver-medallist in successive Uefa Champions League finals, Cuper also ended up just off top spot in two consecutive Italian Serie A seasons. He has been a runner-up more often than he cares to recall in various places across the Mediterranean, from Mallorca to Greece, from Milan to Valencia.
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Cuper’s project for the last year and a half has taken him to the other side of the Med, charged with rebuilding the fallen reputation of what not so long ago was the mightiest country in African football, an Egypt who between 2006 and 2010 won an unprecedented three Africa Cup of Nations titles.
The slump after that was dramatic, but as the Pharaohs prepare for the tough group phase of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, starting in Congo on Sunday, there are grounds for cautious optimism. Cuper has already succeeded where three of his immediate predecessors feel short, by hoisting Egypt to their first Nations Cup finals in seven years, to be staged in Gabon in January.
Just as Cuper needs to slay some old habits, so Egypt need to put behind them some bad memories.
Ghana, who played a goalless draw with Uganda on Friday night, are in the same Group E, and runner-up is as good as last in this phase of the race for Russia: Only the top-placed finishers will make it. And Ghana in qualifying for the last World Cup hammered Egypt 7-3 on aggregate to go to Brazil.
“I know the history with Ghana but it has no bearing,” said Cuper, a manager who has always been sparing with his public utterances and, even in the most excruciating circumstances, kept his emotions concealed.
He even kept his cool on the 2002 day when, in charge of Inter Milan, he saw his team lose on the Italian season’s final day, an afternoon Inter had begun at the top of Serie A. By evening they had conceded the title.
He was stoic when, in charge of Valencia, he lost the finals of the European Cup in 2000 and again in 2001, this just a few years after he had taken Real Mallorca to second place in the Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup. The curse lingered. He later lost a Greek Cup final with Aris Thessaloniki. Cuper’s nearly-man image has faded in recent years, but that’s partly because the quality of club he has joined dipped. A brief stay at Al Wasl, in the UAE, lasted too little time for him start thinking about medals of any colour.
But that job introduced him to football in the Middle East. When he landed the Egypt gig, last year, the Pharaohs soon realised they appointed a Sphinx, taciturn, tactically cautious, inscrutable.
It is not Cuper’s way to bombastically tell his squad they can jump back quickly to their previous status of serial gold-medallists. But he can offer daily reminders while they practice of the determination that made Egypt the continent’s champions: it is epitomised in a man like Essam El Hadaray, the goalkeeper whom Cuper recently recalled to the first team, and who might even start on Sunday, at the ripe age of 43, 145 caps to his name.
Cuper is pleased the leading goalscorer in his squad, Mohamed Salah, has joined up with his compatriots in sparkling form, having thrillingly inspired his club AS Roma to a win last weekend over Cuper’s old employers, Inter. Salah’s searing pace is Egypt’s most potent weapon, and Cuper is a proven master of counter-attacking strategies.
Salah’s zip may be complemented by the quick feet of Mahmoud “Trezeguet” Hassan, another enjoying his club football in Europe. The 22-year-old has two goals and two assists from five matches for his new club, Mouscron of Belgium.
“It’s pleasing to see younger players progressing,” said Cuper, who has been sensitive to criticism that the Pharaohs depend too heavily on the speedy Salah. “When we win it is not just because of Mohamed Salah, but all the players.
“And we will go to Congo looking for all three points.”
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