Egypt’s national soccer team may be ill-prepared for this Saturday’s crucial African championship match against South Africa, but the popular revolt that last month ousted President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power has heightened its motivation, according to the squad’s controversial coach, Hassan Shehata.
A seven-time winner of the Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt, which is languishing at the bottom of its group, needs to defeat South Africa to revive hope of qualifying for the finals. The team is gearing up for the game with professional league matches suspended for the past three months as a result of the popular revolt that toppled Mubarak.
"The game is going to be tough because all local competitions have been halted for a while, and we didn't prepare well for the match. But what I'm sure of is that the players are high-spirited; they became more attached to Egypt after the revolution," Shehata said in an interview on Egyptian TV.
Shehata and the team have more than just qualification riding on Saturday’s game. Egypt’s performance could decide the fate of Shehata, a crowned former player and coach, whose career may depend on his squad’s performance against South Africa.
Some supporters of the team have demanded Shehata’s resignation because of his support of Mubarak at a time that thousands of fans were demonstrating against the former president. Shehata has also been criticized for failing to bring new players into the national team.
Similarly, fans have taken players to task for staying on the side line during the popular revolt rather than supporting it. At a recent friendly played by Al Ahly SC, Egypt’s most popular club and an important supplier of players to the national team, fans held up a banner saying: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."
Shehata conceded that his team needs to shore up its image. “Everyone is looking to change the wrong image of us that was conveyed of late. We represent Egypt's name and hope that people wish us good luck, because it's not about individuals,” Shehata said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer