Egypt secured an unconvincing win in the first of two Africa Cup of Nations’ qualifiers against Togo, a worrisome result that commentators said had more to do with the poor tactics of manager Hossam El Badry than the absence of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah from the team.
Salah tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend and was placed in isolation at his room in a Cairo hotel where the national squad was staying. His test result came just days after he attended his brother's wedding in the Egyptian capital.
In a black tuxedo and a matching face mask, numerous images and videos posted online showed the prolific forward either loosely or not wearing his protective mask while dancing in the middle of a crowd of wedding guests. It's not certain if Salah contracted Covid-19 at the wedding party, although it is a distinct possibility. The wedding reception took place last Monday, just hours after Salah returned home from England.
The wedding party was attended by about 70 people, mostly from Salah’s home village of Nagreeg in the Nile Delta north of Cairo. Authorities have since dispatched Health Ministry teams to test guests who came into contact with the Liverpool forward and to disinfect the village, including Salah’s family home.
Salah has, so far at least, remained largely immune from criticism. After all, other world-class players, including Cristiano Ronaldo, have fallen victim to coronavirus.
Egypt last week tightened its enforcement of preventative measures, warning residents that authorities intended to collect the 4,000-pound ($255) fine for not wearing a mask in public indoor spaces.
Salah holds a special place in the heart of Egyptians. A photo widely shared online on Sunday showed an Egyptian couple celebrating their own wedding day - bridegroom in a black tuxedo and bride in a flowing white wedding dress - posing for a photo with Salah looking on from his hotel balcony.
On social media, news of Salah's ailment triggered an avalanche of "get well" messages from his fans in Egypt, where the player, arguably the greatest player the country has ever produced, is deeply revered. Often referred to as the "pride of all Arabs," his absence from the lineup for Saturday's match against Togo was ironically overshadowed by the disappointment over the Pharaohs' performance, especially given that the West African nation is not ranked among Africa's football giants.
Saturday’s latest outing kept a string of poor or unconvincing results by the Egyptian national squad dating back to the dismal performance at the 2018 World Cup when they lost all three group matches and in the 2019 Cup of Nations when the seven-time champions of the continent were dumped out of their own tournament in the second round by South Africa.
“Salah was definitely missed, after all he is one of the world’s best players, but at the end of the day we were playing Togo and not African heavyweights like Cameroon or Morocco,” said prominent football analyst Sabry Sirag. “The lineup was packed with outstanding players, including Premier League stars like Mahmoud Trezeguet and Mohamed Elneny. But El Badry has no creativity or original tactics.”
“Salah’s absence does not explain the poor show we put on against Togo,” said another commentator, Kareem Said. “The worst of the match is that we had a single scoring chance the entire first half and the lone goal was gotten in a random box melee.”
Fans were much harsher, with most online comments demanding that El Badry be fired by the Egyptian FA.
"I want to tell Hossam El Badry that he needs to find another profession away from football," wrote one fan on the Instagram account of Cairo's popular daily Al Youm Al Sabai, or Seventh Day. "He is not fit to manage the national squad, a replacement must be found before we are sorry," wrote another about the former Al Ahly coach.
The return leg against Togo takes place on Tuesday in Lome. Egypt top their qualifying group on goal difference ahead of Comoros Islands with five points from three matches, with Kenya the other team in Group G. The top two teams from each group will qualify for next year's tournament in Cameroon.