Three years into his role, 28 since he witnessed his country contest a Fifa World Cup, and Ehab Leheta is almost there.
The Egypt team manager has been with the national side every step of they way towards Russia 2018, planning and plotting their path, from qualification for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, to the final defeat to Cameroon in Gabon, through the long road to a first global finals since 1990, culminating in that rollercoaster night against Congo in Alexandria last October.
“A nightmare” for the nerves, Leheta smiles.
Now this is it. One week to go, three years since he traded a place on the board of the Egyptian Football Association for the front line, 28 years since he watched Mahmoud El Gohary’s side at Italia ’90. Egypt’s last World Cup.
This Egypt, Hector Cuper's Egypt, kick off their Group A campaign against Uruguay on June 15 at the Yekaterinburg Arena, with or without Mohamed Salah's electrifying talent, although the current prognosis is promising. The squad - Salah included - leave for Russia on Sunday, backed by the will of a nation. Buoyed by it, too.
“Definitely there’s pressure,” Leheta concedes on the morning of another training-camp day, although he maintains it’s the positive kind. “The players are really in need for the World Cup. On a personal level and at country level, because they need to make a good image for the country, for Egypt. For all Egyptians it’s very important. So not really pressure … motivation.”
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The motivation has increased as Uruguay, Russia and breaking a 28-year wait has crawled ever closer. Spend any time with the squad, and it is clear they are united in a common goal, that irrespective of their one main star, or the Argentine manager with his pidgin Arabic, that they are all pulling in the same direction.
“It comes from that, first of all, all of us have a target,” Leheta says. “We have a target to satisfy our country, satisfy all Egyptians. So the players forget everything outside, even any personal issue, they throw it behind them. When they come to the camp with the national team they have to forget everything.
“And it comes also from the relations together. They are calm, satisfied, relaxed. They are not missing anything. I believe this is where the spirit comes from.”
Egypt will need that to progress from Group A. Pitted against Uruguay, hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, there is the hope they advance to the knockout stages. At 70th and 67th respectively, Russia and Saudi Arabia are the tournament’s lowest-ranked sides (Egypt are 45th). In theory, the path to the last 16 should be manageable. Not for Leheta.
“It’s not only our group; all the groups I believe are equal,” he says. “I don’t believe there is even one weak group. It’s a World Cup. All the teams are more or less similar, but maybe the plus in our group is that we don’t have a No 1 seed. This is the only plus. If you’re talking about all the other three teams, we’re the same.”
Salah provides an obvious X-factor, though. The interview has taken place before the Liverpool forward injured his shoulder in the Uefa Champions League final on May 26. He left the field in tears, fears abounding that he would miss the World Cup. Yet recent updates, and there have understandably been many as Egypt holds its collective breath, suggest he could even be fit in time Uruguay on June 15.
The attention is warranted: having recently concluded his debut season with Liverpool, Salah finished with 44 goals and the PFA Player of the Year award. Still, the emphasis is on the team.
“It’s not only on Salah,” Leheta says. “All the players feel the same to us, but maybe in the last period Salah has been coming more and more. He became one of the top, top players in the world, so there is pressure, lots of concentration on him, from the media, from other teams.
“But his character brings the focus also, not just on him as a player. He has a very, very good personality and I believe he will be a success.
“All the players are the same, they’re all together. I’ve never had any single issue with Salah or anyone. He’s down to earth, very respectful. He treats the team, his country, the players, the staff in a very professional way. Really we appreciate his behaviour, appreciate what he is doing for his country.”
There is a patent appreciation for Cuper as well, certainly among the players and his inner circle. Appointed in March 2015, the much-travelled former Al Wasl manager took the team to the Africa Cup of Nations final, then to Russia 2018.
At 62, he seems as purposeful as ever, constantly barking instructions at his team, his Spanish interpreted by able assistant Mahmoud Fayez, but peppered still with “yalla” and “harak”, urging his players to go, to move it. He will often greet staff in the morning with “sabah al khair”.
“Mr Cuper is really happy that he did something to satisfy the Egyptians,” Leheta says. “This is very important to him. And he always says this to the players: 'try to satisfy your country, make the Egyptians proud of you'.
“He’s very strict, but very kind too. He has a real human character. All the players love him a lot. He is proud of his team coming to the World Cup. He catches all the Egyptian feelings very strongly and he became almost an Egyptian now.”
An Egyptian, just like Leheta, just like Salah, just like the 100 million or so who will tune in and zone out next week, compelled to witness their national team at a World Cup once more. Almost three decades since the last.
“The target is to go to the highest end, and then the result is not in our hands,” Leheta says. “What we are doing and what we are aiming for is to go to the highest point in the World Cup.
“Forget about who we’re going to face in the first match. Regardless of our opponent, whoever is going to be in front of us, the first match is very important ... very important to show all the world that the Egyptians are coming back after 28 years. We want to make all of Egypt happy.”
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