The first World Cup to take place on Mena soil will be without the region’s leading player, the footballer who may well be the finest in the world on current form.
The absence of Mohamed Salah from Qatar 2022 deprives the tournament of a figurehead and the circumstances around Egypt’s failure to qualify are another bitter chapter in the saga of Salah and World Cups.
The Liverpool striker missed the first Egyptian penalty in the shoot-out that on Tuesday settled 210 attritional minutes of play-off in favour of Senegal. The distracting beams of several laser pens were directed from the crowd into the face of Salah as he prepared his spot-kick, as they were at Egypt goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy as he faced Senegal’s spot-kickers.
Salah skied his penalty, teammates Zizo and Mostafa Mohamed failed to covert theirs, and although two Senegal players had fluffed their penalties, by the time Sadio Mane took the fifth for the home side, he had the chance to win the tie without it going into sudden-death.
Mane converted, bringing to an end a trio of contests that have brought he and Salah, Liverpool colleagues, into concentrated, high-stakes rivalry over the last eight weeks. In February, Senegal beat Egypt in Yaounde, Cameroon, to win the African Cup of Nations final. There a 0-0 draw, in which Mane had a penalty saved, was settled by Senegal winning the shoot-out.
In Cairo last week, Egypt won the first leg of the World Cup play-off 1-0 and would hold that lead in the tie for precisely 90 minutes. In the almost perfect symmetry of parity that has characterised this Egypt-versus-Senegal marathon, an own goal after four minutes in each leg constitute the only goals to have been scored in five-and-and-half-hours of open play between these teams in 2022.
Not that the contests have been uneventful. At the Afcon, where every Egypt match after the group stage went either to extra-time or to a shoot-out, the Pharaohs were bad tempered, finishing the tournament with several senior members of the coaching staff banned from the touchline.
At the Diamniadio Olympic Stadium, besides the lasers beamed throughout the night from various points in the crowd at the faces of Egyptian players, at least one banner with an abusive message directed at Salah was on display.
The Egyptian FA say their team bus was pelted with objects on the way to the stadium, and bottles thrown at players and staff. A complaint has been lodged with the Confederation of African Football (CAF), African football’s organising body, and with Fifa.
Both organisations are minded to abandon a play-off system used to decide, over two legs, all the continent’s qualifying berths for a tournament as important as the World Cup. Tension also rose in Abuja on Tuesday, some fans invading the pitch after Nigeria, drawing 1-1 at home, lost their play-off on the away-goals rule to Ghana after a goalless first leg.
Cameroon, meanwhile, went through against Algeria in a tie where the West African country had not held the aggregate until the fourth minute of stoppage time of extra-time, when Karl Toko Ekambi’s strike erased Algeria’s 2-1 overall advantage with a second away goal in Blida.
It means the Qatar finals will be without Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez as well as Salah. It may well lack Morocco and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, too, because perhaps the third-most celebrated current player from North Africa after Salah and Mahrez has fallen out with Vahid Halilhodzic, the manager of Morocco. They qualified by beating DR Congo 5-2 on aggregate.
Egypt know better than anyone the crushing pressure around World Cup play-offs. In 2009, they were obliged to go into a one-off decider against Algeria because the two teams had finished joint top, equal on all the tie-breaking criteria, of their qualifying group.
The Cairo fixture in the group had already been marred by claim and counterclaim over assaults on the Algerian team bus; the decider, played in Sudan and won by Algeria, took place under high security and maximum tension.
Salah’s first World Cup campaign, for a place at Brazil 2014, all but ended when Ghana scored six goals in the first leg of a play-off against an Egyptian team affected by the shutdown of league football in the country, following the Port Said Stadium disaster, when rioting cost more than 70 lives.
Egypt would qualify, via a group format, for the 2018 World Cup. But, with Salah nursing a shoulder injury, they lost all three first-phase matches.
Following the latest setback, Egypt manager Carlos Queiroz announced he would be stepping down. “Congratulations to Senegal,” said Queiroz, who drew attention to the pre-match difficulties but would not offer them entirely as an excuse for losing a tie where, as in the Afcon final, Senegal had been the more accomplished side.
“We started the game out of focus,” said Queiroz. “We don’t say these are reasons for the defeat, but they are contributing factors.”