Valiant defeats no longer enough for Egypt after handball world championship near-miss

With the Olympics six months away, the Pharaohs believe they can fight for the podium in Tokyo

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The World Men's Handball Championship wrapped up in Cairo on Sunday with Denmark becoming just the second team in 47 years to successfully defend their crown.

Hosts Egypt fell to the Danes in a dramatic quarter-final that was decided by a penalty shoot-out after double extra-time last Wednesday, and placed seventh in the competition – their highest World Championship finish since 2001.

The Egyptians gave the undefeated Danes their toughest test throughout the championship and had multiple chances to walk away as victors, but ultimately paid the price for wasting those opportunities.

The quarter-final was a thrilling 80-minute affair worthy of a ‘30 for 30’ documentary.

In the dying seconds of regulation time, with both sides tied, a substitution error by Egypt gifted Denmark possession but an Ahmed Hesham steal saved the North Africans as the game went into extra-time.

With Denmark leading by one goal at the end of the first extra-time, tournament MVP Mikkel Hansen ignored a referee whistle and was sent off, allowing Egypt to equalise, thanks to a converted penalty by star right-wing Mohamed Sanad.

The exact opposite scenario unfolded at the end of the second extra-time, as Egypt squandered a one-goal lead, allowing Denmark to draw level after Ibrahim El Masry was handed a red card.

Veteran duo Ahmed El Ahmar and Ali Zein missed their penalties in the deciding shoot-out as Denmark sank the hearts of 100 million Egyptians to advance. El Ahmar, Egypt’s 37-year-old trusted captain and leader, had also missed a penalty at a crucial moment in extra-time.

“It’s a tough loss to digest,” said Sanad on the Egyptian talk show ‘The Last Word’.

The Egyptian players are understandably inconsolable, having come so close to knocking out the defending champions.

Zein, who was named Man of the Match, fell to the ground in tears the second the contest was over.

“I felt like I dashed the hopes of so many people,” admitted Zein, who has played for multiple European teams and is currently with Sharjah SC in the UAE.

But it is both impossible and unfair to pin the defeat on just one player. It was a roller coaster game that is still being deliberated by fans worldwide – one that saw the Egyptians edge to the brink of victory more than once.

For any Egyptian, it’s hard not to assess the Pharaohs’ campaign with mixed emotions.

On one hand, the squad played a brilliant seven matches, with their only two losses coming against the eventual finalists, Sweden and Denmark (each by just one goal).

Two decades on from Egypt’s heroic fourth-place finish at the World Championships in France (they were the first non-European side in competition history to make it to the semi-finals), the North African nation finally looks like they have a squad that can rival the famed ‘Dream Team’ of 2001.

With the Olympics just six months away, the Pharaohs have every reason to believe they can fight for the podium in Tokyo.

Egypt’s previous best showing at the Games came in Atlanta 1996 when they finished sixth. They came seventh in Sydney 2000 but have suffered a series of disappointments at the Olympics ever since, failing to make it out of the group stage at every subsequent appearance.

A shock win over Sweden in Rio 2016 was the main highlight of an otherwise average campaign but the progress made since then has been remarkable.

At the World Championships in 2019, Egypt returned to the top eight for the first time in 18 years, signalling the dawn of a new era for handball in the country.

At the youth level, the Egyptians claimed a historic title at the World U19 Championship in North Macedonia in 2019 (first non-European side to achieve that feat). The 20-year-old Ahmed Hesham, voted MVP of that competition, currently plays a key role on Egypt’s first team and is a star at French side USAM Nimes Gard, alongside Sanad, who is 10 years his senior.

The current squad features an interesting mix of generations and there is great chemistry among the players. The veterans bring experience to the table, while the younger talents know what it feels like to be the best in the world.

While the Egyptian team should be very proud of their Cairo exploits this past month, it’s important not to overlook the mistakes made and to not feel satisfied with a seventh-place showing.

A clutch mentality is still lacking among the squad, which wasn’t just evident in the game against Denmark, but also in the group-stage draw with Slovenia. Egypt trailed Slovenia by five goals in that match but closed the gap and went on to lead by two, only to let sloppy mistakes cost them an outright victory.

Egypt have a long history of near-misses in team competitions, be it in football, handball or anything else, and the culture of feeling content by making a “respectable appearance” is deep-rooted in Egyptian sport.

The fact that the handball players are devastated by their quarter-final exit is a good sign that this mentality is slipping away. But Egyptian fans must also adopt the same philosophy.

The overwhelming reaction from the Egyptian public this past week has been more of celebration than disappointment. The fans have every right to be proud of the team, but celebrating a narrow defeat as if it were a victory is actually doing these players a disservice.

It gives them the impression that we do not expect more from them; that we do not believe they can do better. Demanding excellence is the best thing we can do for this team and these players, and will further boost their confidence in their own capabilities.

"We have to work on this, we have to improve; we have the Olympics in six months' time and we have to battle for a medal there," Sanad told On Time Sports channel.

“Just as Denmark have Mikkel Hansen and Niklas Landin, we have an entire squad full of players at the highest level, some of the best players in the world, and we have to be proud of that.”

Sanad, who was voted the best right-wing in the French league last season, has a point. Instead of getting intimidated by an opponent’s star names, the team should focus on their own strengths and value their own skills.

With the spotlight fixed on them, and the nation firmly behind them, nothing short of a podium in Tokyo should quench this team’s thirst.