“The truth is, we were not on the field in the first half,” concluded Carlos Queiroz, the most worldly manager at the Africa Cup of Nations. His Egypt side had roused themselves after half-time, he thought, but by then they were trailing Nigeria, whose command of the opening fixture in Group D would be maintained through the next 45 minutes.
Another truth is that Queiroz looked as animated as any of his players as he made his way towards the grandstand behind the technical area after the final whistle, engaged in a dispute with a spectator, believed to be an Egyptian supporter.
The coach gestured that he wanted to speak face to face to the individual, while an official from the Egyptian Federation discouraged the confrontation. Queiroz was still angry when he complained later about the poor use of VAR, a penalty appeal turned down against Egypt, and the sluggish start to this Afcon he had overseen.
The 1-0 defeat of one of the pre-tournament favourites cannot count as a genuinely seismic shock given the quality of the opposition. Nigeria will always back themselves to go far in the continent’s showpiece but their readiness to begin adventurously against a fellow heavyweight should be set against their disrupted build-up.
The Nigerian Football Federation changed manager a month ago. Augustine Eguavoen stepping in as caretaker after the dismissal of Gernot Rohr. Nigeria suffered a series of selection setbacks, the strikers Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis and Odion Ighalo all declared unavailable because of injury or administrative issues around their call-ups.
No team at the Afcon has had a smooth lead-in, given the late deadline allowed to clubs in releasing players, but Egypt could assume certain advantages. Queiroz was working in a tournament environment with many of his senior men only last month, at the Arab Cup in Qatar where he was able to pick all the country’s home- and Middle East-based players.
Six of the Egyptians who started against Nigeria were in the side that started the semi-final of the Arab Cup, losing to a stoppage time goal against Tunisia, including goalkeeper and back four. Granted, against Nigeria the coach had to compensate for the early departure due to injury of Akram Tawfik at right-back. It was an awkward disruption in a key area, the flank from which Nigeria’s Moses Simon posed a consistent threat.
After Kelechi Iheanacho’s stunning strike had earned the three points, Eguavoen reminded his players how strong a marker they have laid down in a tournament where other pre-Afcon favourites have so far looked timid. Algeria opened their defence of the title by being held to a 0-0 draw by Sierra Leone. Senegal needed an injury-time penalty to defeat Zimbabwe.
The Super Eagles, Eguavoen pointed out, had taken the fight to an Egypt “coached by one of the top coaches in the world and with one of the best players in the world”.
He was referencing Salah and Queiroz, the coach formerly in charge of Real Madrid, ex-assistant manager of Manchester United, and almost uniquely experienced in continental tournaments. Once — briefly — in charge of the UAE national team, this is Mozambique-born Queiroz’s second Afcon, having guided South Africa to the quarter-finals 20 years ago.
He also took Colombia to the same stage of the 2019 Copa America, and Iran, where he served as national coach for almost eight years, to a semi- and a quarter-final of the Asian Cup. Iran qualified for two World Cups on his watch, distinguishing themselves in their group at both, and he was manager of Portugal when they reached the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup.
No medals in that roll of honour, but a sound record of reaching knockout phases. That is the absolute minimum expected of Egypt, and they should achieve it still, with matches against Guinea-Bissau and Sudan to come and a forgiving tournament format in which the four best third-place group finishers will make it to the last 16. But there is a strong motive for finishing better than second in Group D. The runner-up from Egypt’s group will play, in the next round, against whoever wins Algeria’s group.
As for Salah, it has been a while since he played 90 minutes in any team that fired a mere two shots on target all game, Egypt’s meagre yield against Nigeria. Salah arrived in Cameroon fresh from 23 goals — plus nine assists — in 26 appearances for his club, Liverpool, this season.
But the sprinter with the sure-fire finish, the conjuror of goals from improbable angles was absent on Tuesday in Garoua, where, seeking to galvanise the Pharaohs, Salah drifted into deeper positions, away from his optimum territory. His coaching team have work ahead to get the best out of Africa’s biggest star.