One of football’s most searing hotseats is currently occupied by a man who certainly understands pressure. At Valencia and Inter Milan, Hector Cuper relished the burden of expectation. As national team coach of Egypt, he will need equally strong shoulders.
It is Cuper’s second experience of coaching in the Arab world; the first didn’t exactly go to plan. After just four months in the UAE with Al Wasl, Cuper was sacked in March 2014 – a victim of the notorious impatience of clubs in the region.
Now, the Argentine is looking to rebuild his reputation by removing the albatross that has been weighing Egypt down for 25 years. Anything other than qualification for their first World Cup since 1990 will be deemed as failure, and Cuper knows it.
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Before reaching Russia, challenges abound for the 59-year-old, not least the security clampdown that has seen most clubs in the country forced to play in front of empty stadia.
“We do not deserve this, we really do not,” Cuper tells Sport360 in an exclusive interview. “The fans are the throbbing heart of this sport. I feel that when the players score a goal they are not happy, they are not hyped. They need the fans.
“The fans are like the spice to the food, they add something extra, something that makes it better. Without them football would be soulless. We are working together to get out of the crisis. We need a good atmosphere and we need to be on the same wavelength. I am sure that we will manage to solve the issues we face.
“I am treated well here in Egypt. Yes, the situation in the country is not ideal but I take all the precautions that I need to take to stay safe and secure. I am extremely happy in Egypt, and I think I have taken the right decision of coming here.”
On the pitch, Cuper has overseen five straight wins, with the Pharaohs particularly impressive in a pair of 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying victories – first beating Tazania 3-0 in Alexandria before dishing out a 5-1 away thrashing to Chad. The latter are Egypt’s opponents in 2018 World Cup qualifying this week and Cuper is confident that the players will continue to respond to his methods.
“Until now I see the 4-4-2 formation as the most ideal one for the team,” Cuper explains to Sport360. “With this formation the team attacks quite well.
“Mahmoud Abdul Monem Kahraba and Mohamed Salah are essential figures in my formation. Salah is such a great player. In the national team he plays as an attacking midfielder, while in Roma he plays as a winger. In the end his shifting of positions does not bother us.
“We also need two strong players in midfield, and I believe Zamalek’s Tarek Hamed and Basel’s Mohamed Elneny are perfect for the position. The players are obedient and they managed to fit in the playing system.
“What makes me the happiest with the Egypt national team is that the players are modest and respectful. There is no one who is egotistic, or feels that he is the undisputed star among the others.
“They are humble and that what makes the atmosphere in the team great. The group does not spend a lot of time with me, but I do my best to keep them happy every time we meet.”
Like his new adopted nation, Cuper knows plenty about falling agonisingly short. At the turn of the century he guided Valencia to two successive Champions League finals, only to see first Real Madrid and then Bayern Munich beat his side. Cuper had many talented players at his disposal – including Claudio Lopez, Kily Gonzalez and captain Gaizka Mendieta – but the Argentine insists it was the sort of team ethic he is instilling in the Pharaohs that was at the heart of Valencia’s success.
“Reaching the final twice with Valencia was the highlight of my career in Spain, of course,” Cuper recalls. “Not winning either of them was obviously disappointing though. The first final was against Real Madrid. My team was not experienced enough to grind out a victory in this occasion. The second final was against Bayern Munich, and the game was lost on penalties.
“The team did not have a standout star; I would say that the team itself was the star. Collectively we were dynamic and had the right attitude. We did not have a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Lionel Messi, but the group was outstanding and I am proud that I was a part of it.
“In the end luck was not on our side as we could not win a trophy. But the experience and the team that I had were fantastic.”
At Inter Milan, there certainly was a “standout” player for Cuper to manage. Having moved from Barcelona for £19.5 million (Dh110m) in 1999, Ronaldo was waiting for Cuper when he arrived at San Siro in 2001. Rumours of a rift between Argentine manager and Brazilian striker regularly appeared but despite Ronaldo moving on at the end of Cuper’s first season in Italy, the veteran coach insists there were no issues between the pair.
“When I arrived to Milan, Ronaldo was suffering from a serious injury. I did my best to support him. We worked on his fitness and remained patient. All I wanted was for him to come back stronger, and he did.”
At the end of his first season, Cuper’s Inter were on the brink of lifting a first Serie A title since 1989 heading into the final game of the season. But a 4-2 defeat to Lazio broke Nerazzurri hearts and handed Juventus the championship. Once again, Cuper had fallen short.
“That last game on the 5th of May was a bitter affair,” he recalls. “Only a win would have given us the league title, but that game against Lazio was a strange one. I still have no answers to why we got defeated as I remain sure that my team deserved the win.”
His career may have thus far been punctuated by dramatic near-misses, but should Cuper guide Egypt to Russia 2018, there is no question they will be swiftly forgotten.
Interview by Ahmed Ezz.
Former Manchester United and Everton manager David Moyes has been sacked as Real Sociedad boss.
The Spanish club dispensed with 52-year-old Moyes’ services on Monday after a year in the job with La Real sitting in 16th place in La Liga, the same position as when he took over.
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Sociedad announced Moyes’ departure in a statement which said: “Real Sociedad has decided to rescind the contract of the coach of the first team David Moyes.”
His assistant Billy McKinlay has also parted company with the club.
In the statement, Real Sociedad said: “The club wishes to thank David Moyes as well as Billy McKinlay for the contribution, professionalism and dedication that they have shown during the time in charge of the first team.
“We wish them the best of luck in their professional and personal futures.”
Friday’s 2-0 away defeat to Las Palmas was La Real’s fourth loss in their last five league games and left them with nine points from their opening 11 fixtures.
Under Moyes, whose contract was set to expire in June 2016, Real Sociedad have won just twice this season after 12 victories in 38 steered them to a 12th-place finish in the 2014-15 campaign.
Former Barcelona assistant coach Eusebio Sacristan is the favourite to replace him.
The Spanish tactician has been out of a job since being dismissed by Barca’s reserves in February 2015.
Eusebio, 51, coached Celta Vigo in the Segunda Division in the 2009-10 campaign, but has yet to guide a Primera Division side.
Real Sociedad host Sevilla in San Sebastian after the international break before travelling to the Nou Camp to face defending Spanish champions Barcelona on November 28.
Sun & Sand Sports and PUMA are giving UAE football fans the opportunity to showcase their football skills for a chance to meet five-time French footballer of the year and PUMA brand ambassador, Thierry Henry through the launch of the PUMA #LegendChallenge.
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Starting Monday, the PUMA #LegendChallenge will see football fans compete for the highest score at the football trail zone at Sun & Sand Sports’ flagship store in The Dubai Mall. Fans recording the highest score throughout the week will get to meet the 1998 World Cup winner at an exclusive in-store event on November 12. Fans will also be encouraged to share their skills and scores with the world, through posting the results on social media under the hashtags #LegendChallenge and #ForeverThierry.
During the event, winners of the PUMA #LegendChallenge will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the ex-Arsenal superstar face-to-face, as well as impress him at Sun & Sand Sports’ football trial zone with the same soccer skills that got them a ticket into this highly exclusive event. Henry will also share inspiring stories and insights about his love for the beautiful game as he reflects on his much decorated career and aims to inspire a new generation of up-and-coming talent.
“Thierry Henry is the first of many football legends and players that PUMA will bring to the Middle East. We’re thrilled to have him interact with football fans and give the audience an insight into his genius at the Sun and Sand Sports Store and hope fans will flock to The Dubai Mall over the next few days to try their luck at the #LegendChallenge” said Abdelhamid Oraibi, Head of Marketing for PUMA Middle East and East Africa.
Tickets to the 12th November cannot be purchased. The one off event is part of PUMA’s Forever Faster Campaign, which challenges individuals and teams to put more energy into training and more positivity back into sport. However, 30 lucky football fans from the UAE will be given the opportunity to win a meet and greet with Thierry Henry by taking on a PUMA’s #LegendChallenge.
For more information on how to take part in PUMA’s #LegendChallenge, visit the Sun and Sands Sports Store in The Dubai Mall.