Days out from one of the greatest tests of an extensive career and, somewhat surprisingly, manager Javier Aguirre appears perfectly at ease.
This despite 100 million-plus Egyptians demanding he gets it right. That despite the pressure of guiding their national team to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) crown over the course of the next four weeks. To a first Afcon title for nine years. For the first time in 13, an Afcon held in Egypt.
Egypt expects, and Aguirre is all too aware. He has spent the majority of the past 10 months since his appointment as a Mexican in Cairo, comfortable amid the suffocating traffic, the noise, the bustling life.
"It's like Mexico City," Aguirre tells The National. "It's crazy and chaotic. But the people are very warm, nice people. And it's football, football, football. I don't know if they practise another sport. It's incredible. But I feel at home."
Aguirre’s Latin American roots are easily discernible when he speaks, his distinctive Americanised English inflected by his native Spanish. Often he punctuates points with a raspy chuckle. It is disarming and regular, a sure-fire puncture to any tension that could arise when discussing his current remit with Egypt.
If this is a man who should feel the weight of a nation on his shoulders, he is doing a fine job of disguising it. Perhaps that comes with experience, of which he has plenty: manager with Mexico at two World Cups, in 2002 and 2010; reaching the final of the Copa America in 2001; Gold Cup winner in 2009. At the 2015 Asian Cup, he took Japan to the last eight. With the Afcon to come, Aguirre could be the only manager with that collection of tournaments on his CV.
“I’m a very lucky guy, because as a coach and an assistant coach, and also as a player, I played a lot of international events,” he says. “I started 43 years ago knowing nothing, with no expectations nor dreams, just to play. Now, aged 60, I am almost at the opening game of a massive tournament.
“To be honest, though, my mood is quite different this time. I have a lot of responsibility — the head coach of this big project. Also, in Egypt football is almost a religion. Around 100 million people here, they all love the game. It’s incredible. But I prefer it this way, really. I said to my wife, ‘I think it’s my time’. I can handle this pressure.”
There are reasons for the optimism, for the relish. Some are tangible, others less so. As a player, Aguirre represented his country at a home World Cup in 1986 – “after that, my God, everything is little” - and his lack of Arabic helps shelter him from the strain.
He is blissfully oblivious to the commotion and conjecture, be it on the busy Cairo streets, on social media, in newspapers, or on radio and television. “I live in a kind of bubble,” he adds.
In stark contrast, his players do not. As Friday's opening match against Zimbabwe approaches, and the tournament unspools through Group A assignments against DR Congo and Uganda, the pressure will amp. The players know it; they feel it. Expectations are high.
Egypt have been crowned continental champions a record seven times, but after three quick-fire successes between 2006 and 2010, they have suffered. In three tournaments between 2012 and 2015, they failed to qualify. Last time out, two years ago, they lost in the final to Cameroon.
But an Afcon at home? That is different. Only the kitman, Aguirre says, survives from 2006, when Egypt defeated Ivory Coast at the same Cairo arena they will play Friday. Aguirre has been preaching calm; that it’s only natural to sense pressure. He knows, however, that how his players handle it will determine their fate.
“That is the real point,” he says, with emphasis. “I’ve had no time to really get to know the players — just four or five Fifa dates and the preparations here. So that’s the main thing I’m concerned about: how they handle the pressure in this country. This is our biggest enemy. The poor players, I don’t want to be in their shoes. All the media here and in the streets, it’s kind of an order: ‘You have to win’. Second-place? Not an option.”
Seven players to watch out for at Afcon 2019
It is welcome, then, that Aguirre can call upon the current best footballer in Africa. Mohamed Salah was allowed to arrive late to camp last week, but did so in high spirits after a season with Liverpool in which he finished joint-top scorer in the Premier League – his second successive Golden Boot – and as a Uefa Champions League winner.
The clamour around Salah, especially in his homeland, can be tough to navigate though. During Eid Al Fitr earlier this month, the media and public attention outside his home was such that Salah took to social media to complain it prevented him from leaving his house for prayer. That attention is felt throughout the national team. Once Salah arrived, security doubled.
“Totally crazy,” Aguirre says. “Mohamed Salah is like … do you remember David Beckham in Real Madrid? I was living there at the time [as manager of Atletico Madrid] and it was unimaginable. Many security guards. He could not even go to the street. With Mohamed, it’s very difficult. Today, in Muslim countries, in African countries, he’s the best. No doubt about it. For the fans, he’s like Messi or Cristiano. It’s unbelievable.”
Inside the camp, Salah is anything but difficult. It is something Aguirre specifically resolved to do in the lead-up to naming his squad: rid the group of players who could potentially upset the collective. Everyone must contribute to the same mood. Salah is simply another member of the family. In fact, he’s vital to it.
“He’s a very nice guy, a humble guy,” Aguirre says. “He’s sincere, he jokes with everybody. I have no problem with him. We have a real, normal relationship. He never says no to the national team. He has friends in the team since 10 years ago, so he’s one of the group. The only things are the sponsors and the fans. If he wants to go to the gym or play ping-pong like any other player, unfortunately it’s not easy for him. In my opinion, he feels uncomfortable. Maybe that’s the price you pay.
“However, Mohamed can handle it. And he’s helped me with the group since the beginning; he’s a kind of leader. We have a fluid communication. I’m really happy with him because he had an extraordinary season with his club. So I say, ‘OK Mohamed, if you’re able to help us win the African Cup, for sure you’re going to be in the last three or four for the Ballon d’Or’.”
Ask Aguirre where Salah ranks among the plethora of talent he has managed, and he reveals he was thinking about that just the other day. Sergio Aguero is up there, Diego Costa too. But he managed them as teenagers at Atletico; they were just forging their footballing paths.
There is Fernando Torres, Diego Forlan too. With Mexico, Rafa Marquez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Even Ismail Matar, the leader on the pitch during his two-year spell at Al Wahda from 2015.
That was the job that preceded Egypt. He won the League Cup in 2016 and the President’s Cup the following season and says he learnt a lot from his time in Abu Dhabi. In his first training session with Egypt, he surprised the players with calls of “Yalla, yalla, shabab” [“go, go boys”], and “malish, malish” [“it's OK”]. He doesn’t rely on a translator to get across his message. The UAE prepared him well.
“One hundred per cent,” he says. “First, the Muslim culture. And it helped some of my Spanish staff adapt, those who’d never worked in that culture. It’s important to have respect. Two years in Al Wahda was an excellent preparation
“These players are very similar to Emirati players and also Mexican players. They have things in common: very, very sensitive people. My wife and I, we loved Abu Dhabi. We have many friends there. Unfortunately things happened, but in the future, I want to go back.”
It is easy to imagine he would be welcomed back with open arms. Aguirre’s man-management is one of his most identifiable attributes. His relationships with players, for the most part, is his greatest strength. It extends beyond football. He is a people person.
“Even if the players are good, bad, average, today I receive messages from many parts of the world,” he says. “For example, Keisuke Honda in Japan – a top player. I’m very proud that I still have good communication.
“Maybe I have just a few trophies, and a couple of silvers, but if I go tomorrow on vacation to Abu Dhabi or Tokyo people will shake my hand and go with me for food. In this moment, I’m really happy with what I did in the past. Of course, I made big mistakes, but not on purpose. I’m a normal guy. I have problems with my wife, with my sons. People can speak to me about anything, away from football. Yes, at this moment, I’m a coach, but first of all I’m Javier Aguirre, the Mexican guy who can speak with you about any subject.”
For now, Afcon forms his focus. It must. When Aguirre signed his contract last August, the tournament was slated for Cameroon, but a number of problems there meant it was passed to Egypt. Initially, the national football association told Aguirre to use the tournament to blood young players. The 2021 Afcon, and the 2022 World Cup, represented more important targets.
“Suddenly it changed to Egypt and the next day the FA president called me: ‘Coach, we need that cup, we need to win. Do your best.’ It changed everything,” Aguirre says. “Now, we have a lot of pressure. It’s not enough for the semi-final, the final, nothing. It’s the cup. All the people are asking for that.
“But, for me, it’s normal. It’s the same as the Gold Cup: I played in 2009 and won it, but when I lost in 2001 they almost killed me. With Gold Cup, Mexico has to be the champions. And I’m feeling the same sensation here in Egypt.”
Egypt preparations for Afcon 2019
Aguirre cites Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal and Ivory Coast as threats this next month. Twenty-two of Nigeria’s 23-man squad, meanwhile, play their club football in Europe. But, he counters, what many speculate could hinder Egypt’s chances could prove decisive in hauling them over the line.
“There’s four or five big teams,” Aguirre says. “But for Egypt we’re playing at home, and we have Mohamed Salah — two big advantages. OK, some of my staff are saying: ‘Coach, but Nigeria, very good team’. But imagine what Nigeria are thinking?
"If I was coach of, say, South Africa, I’d be thinking ‘Woah, we have to play against Egypt in Cairo, with 80,000 people cheering against us, and the best African player last year, top scorer in England twice, and Champions League winner… They have to be afraid. Not afraid – I respect everybody – but it’s logical. I’m not saying anything strange. It’s natural for us to be favourites.”
Living up to that tag, surviving one of the greatest tests of his distinguished career, and the expectant 100 million, and the pressure as hosts, and ending Egypt’s long wait for the trophy? Presumably, it would mean a lot.
“A lot,” Aguirre says. “A lot, a lot, a lot. I’m in the final part of my career, I’m a long way from my soul, my Mexico, and my wife is coming with my sons. I thank God I’m here, working, fine and healthy. I’m really looking forward to it. In this moment, I’m very happy. I’m relaxed.
“I know for these people, the last trophy was in 2010 and the last time they were second. So, for me, it’s very important to give something back to Egypt, who gave me the chance, gave me their hand and I took it.
“It’s like my country: they have a lot of problems; life’s not easy. A big country; too many people. If you can give some happiness to these people? Wow, it would be my best award.”