Hector Cuper has rejected rumours of internal unrest among his Egypt squad as they look to “bow out of the World Cup in style” against Saudi Arabia on Monday.
Group A’s two bottom sides, already eliminated following two defeats each, bring down their respective campaigns at the Volgograd Arena in Volgograd.
Egypt’s time in Russia has been disappointing, with a last-minute 1-0 loss to Uruguay and a comprehensive 3-1 defeat to hosts Russia ending hopes of advancing to the knockouts for the first time.
However, troubles on the pitch were reported to have spilled over off it as well, with goalkeeper and captain Essam El Hadary, 45, said to have clashed with the goalkeeping coach and players following the Russia reverse.
El Hadary, yet to play this tournament, is aiming to become the oldest player to participate in a World Cup. He is expected to replace Mohamed El Shenawy in goal for the Saudi Arabia match.
El Hadary was asked at the pre-match press conference on Sunday about friction between him and his colleagues, prompting Cuper to step in.
“First of all, there’s always a lot of talk around football, a lot of rumours swirling around the team,” the Argentine said. “But I would actually ask whether there’s any evidence of this. Because if you don’t have any concrete proof I don’t have to answer this question. I always say that within the team there’s a great harmony, that’s why we’ve made it as far as we have."
El Hadary added: "If I was making trouble in the team then I don’t deserve to be in the team."
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Cuper put Egypt’s defeat to Russia down to a 15-minute period in which they conceded three goals, insisting his players had generally played well in both their matches.
He accepted criticism of his tactics, perceived to be too defensive, and conceded that Mohamed Salah’s injury had adversely affected his team. The Liverpool forward, recovering from a shoulder injury, was an unused substitute during the Uruguay match and looked off the pace upon his return to the starting line-up against Russia. He did score a late penalty, though.
However, Cuper said he and his side were determined to show their value against Saudi Arabia and register what would be a first win in a World Cup for the country. Egypt are making their third appearance at a global finals and first in 28 years.
“I’m not sad, I don’t share the opinion the team didn’t perform well,” Cuper said. “We came to the World Cup saying we needed to focus on what we’re doing well. Because I can only repeat: I’m really satisfied with what we’ve done. I wouldn’t say happy - that’s too far - but I’m satisfied. We committed minor errors in matches and what we want to do is then bow out in style in the next match.
“For us this is an important match, particularly because we want to end this participation in the World Cup on a high note, with a good result. And once again we’re playing for all people in Egypt; we want to give them joy.
"We want to end this World Cup with a triumph, even though this might be only a footnote in the future. But for Egypt to win a first World Cup match would be something very important.”
Meanwhile, Cuper was asked about the controversy surrounding Egypt's choice of Grozny as their base, and Salah’s perceived “exploitation” by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechnya head of state. Kadyrov said on Saturday that he had given Salah honorary citizenship in Russia’s most contentious republic.
“Fifa offered us a couple of choices when it came to setting up the base camp and we chose Grozny from that list,” Cuper said. “And that’s all really. And the other topic talking about Salah, I don’t know exactly how he was used in any populist way. I don’t really understand that. This image of Mohamed, the entire team went to Grozny.
“Once again, I can only repeat, Fifa offered us a choice of seven or eight different places, we had a look at them and Grozny seemed to be the best choice. And everybody agreed with that, this wasn’t only my opinion.”