From the moment that the final whistle blew in Omdurman to confirm Algeria's 1-0 play-off win and ensure that Egypt would once again fail to qualify for the World Cup, Mohamed Zidan has been waiting for today. Egypt begin their African Cup of Nations campaign against Nigeria in Benguela, and if they could start with the sort of performance with which they demolished Cameroon in their opening match in Ghana two years ago, it may go some way to alleviating the pain of missing out on the biggest prize. The wound is clearly still raw.
"It was a game about blood," says Zidan. "Algeria scored a goal from nothing. If Antar Yahia had that chance 100 times he would not hit it in that way and the ball would not go in the net that way. "Then the team defended the whole game, stayed in their own half. We had many chances, but we couldn't make one count. You can't say that Algeria don't deserve to be at the World Cup, but they had luck."
What makes it worse is that, having won the last two tournaments - in 2006 with the benefit of home advantage; in 2008 quite superbly, putting four past both Cameroon and Ivory Coast - this Egypt side has reason to believe they are the best in Africa. By pushing Brazil close and then beating Italy in last summer's Confederations Cup, they even offered a hint of what might have achieved in South Africa this summer if only they had qualified.
"It was our dream to go to the World Cup. We're a very good team and deserved to go," says Zidan. "We are the best team ever in Egyptian football. Everybody in Egypt says we are the best group of players of all time, but you can't always get what you want, and we have to keep our heads up. The best answer for the fans, for the people and for ourselves would be to defend our title. We've a point to prove to ourselves."
No team has ever won three successive Cup of Nations and to do so would confirm Egypt's position as one of the greatest African teams of all time, yet Zidan is concerned that Egyptian football is not developing in the best possible way, something which he attributes to the failure to qualify for a World Cup since 1990. "We are not sending young players outside Egypt. The Egyptian clubs develop young players and play them in their youth teams and when they are 17 or 18 they get a contract and start to get in the first team and they are very happy," he says.
"And when we have players who could be good enough to play in Europe, the clubs ask far too much money. Nobody will pay ?4million (Dh21.3m) for a player from Egypt when they can get a player for ?200,000 somewhere else in Africa." Zidan left Egypt for Demark at 17 when Al-Masary, his hometown club, rejected him for a supposed lack of passing ability. He trained with the Copenhagen side B93, hoping for a contract, but was signed by Akademisk Boldklub, the Danish side, after being spotted juggling a ball in a park. He moved to Midtjylland in 2003, before graduating to the German Bundesliga with Werder Bremen, then Mainz, Hamburg and now Borussia Dortmund.
"Our game would be more developed if we got our young players abroad earlier," he said. "In Egypt these players are very big, they start winning championships and so they become superstars. And so, like Mohamed Abou Trika, they don't want to leave. Everybody knows who they are, but in Europe they start with nothing, and some players can't handle that. It's like you've thrown everything away. "There's only a few who can make it. Mido and I both went to Europe when we were 17 years old. Mido had 10 years in Europe and now he's gone back; I don't understand why he did that. He's throwing everything he did away."
Zidan sees Amr Zaki as a classic example. The forward had a great start to life at Wigan Athletic in the Premier League last season, but faded badly and, after failing to return on time from one of Egypt's World Cup qualifiers, he was dismissed by Wigan's manager Steve Bruce as the most unprofessional player he had ever worked with. Unsurprisingly, Wigan decided against making his loan from Zamalek permanent.
"He had a very good start for Wigan but it's not the same as it was in Egypt and when he goes home he misses being a name, living as a hero, and that affected him back in Europe," explains Zidan. "If I could go to England and start in a team and suddenly I become a starting player and in half a year I've scored 10 goals, I'd never give this away. People wait two or three years for this, and in the first half season he scores 10 goals. It's like a dream. But his mentality was different because he came later."
The flip side of that is the sacrifices players abroad have to make, and Zidan missed the 2006 tournament because he felt it was essential he secure his place in the first team at Mainz, whom he had just joined on loan. They won the tournament without him, and two years later they won it with him. Today, they set out to try to win it again; and this time, after another World Cup disappointment, it means more than ever.
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