On Sunday night, one of the most mysterious droughts in international football finally came to an end – Egypt beat Congo in a thriller to make it to their first World Cup since 1990, and just their third overall.
In front of 85,000 fans at Borg El Arab stadium in Alexandria, 30-year-old Ahmed Elmohamady was subbed on in the 88th minute. Egypt were leading 1-0 but Congo equalised two minutes from time before Mohamed Salah scored a penalty in the dying moments to seal the Pharaohs’ place at Russia 2018.
They were a dramatic seven minutes that instilled every single emotion possible in each Egyptian watching. From hope to despair to ecstasy… In the end, the World Cup dream that has evaded Egypt for so long was finally achieved, and Elmohamady struggles to find the right words to describe it all.
We caught up with the Aston Villa winger to find out how it feels to be part of this historic feat, 10 years on from his international debut.
How do you feel about securing qualification to the 2018 World Cup?
Thank God of course for the victory. Everyone was waiting for something like this and people really needed something to bring them joy. Thankfully we’ve managed to be the reason to make the entire nation happy. If you look at the stadium during the game and after the game, people were ecstatic and really felt happiness from the bottom of their hearts.
There was huge pressure on us of course, entering the game knowing how much it meant to the Egyptian people. That was the most important thing, to make sure the national team did not disappoint.
From the start of the qualification journey, everyone was optimistic and we had a lot of hope that this would finally be the time we make it to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
It’s a huge thing that this generation has etched its name in the history books and has ended the curse we’ve suffered from in previous qualification campaigns. Going to Russia is of course huge and we’re all looking forward to it.
You’ve had a long career, can you compare how you felt during this game to anything else you’ve experienced in the past?
The person on the sidelines suffers a lot more than the person on the pitch. The player on the pitch is only thinking about the match, and only sees what’s happening on the pitch and rarely focuses on what’s happening in the stands or anywhere else. But for us, sitting on the bench, we could hear who is saying what, the fans, and could see every attacking play we make and each one they make… it was an indescribable feeling.
It’s been the ultimate dream – if you look at the stadium, we’ve never seen anything like it. I was at the play-off game against Algeria in 2009, and the qualification circumstances were similar, but I’ve never seen happiness like I’ve seen at the Congo game.
After the game, people could really feel the joy, deep in their hearts. And I believe this joy will last for a long time, until the World Cup. People are saying, ‘we don’t want anything else, we just wanted Egypt to qualify’. So many people plan on flying to Russia to support us, to enjoy themselves there. People are hoping the draw pits us against some strong teams, so they can see us play against these big teams.
Thank God we’ve managed to make all these people happy, and we hope they stay feeling that way for a long time.
How did those last few minutes go for you, especially with the crowd in the stadium?
There a lot of young players on our team who have never been put in situations like this. What they have experienced during that game is a very valuable life lesson for them. To score a goal and celebrate, and feel so close to the win, then concede a goal in the last four minutes, then score an injury-time winner… this is a lesson learned for every player that was on the pitch.
After they scored a goal, you could see the determination in each one of our players, everyone was running and battling until we got the penalty in the final moment. These are all life lessons we take away from this, and it shows us how this dream was not achieved easily, but we suffered so much in the past and we were finally rewarded.
What was the feeling ahead of the Congo match?
We all watched the game between Ghana and Uganda which took place the day before our match and from the moment their game ended in a draw we felt really optimistic about our chances. There was talk that we shouldn’t get too excited because that’s never a good idea before playing a crucial game and that we had to remain focused.
We were all really happy but we did our best to keep it inside until we won our match. We were so happy they drew because we felt that we were literally just one step away from the World Cup, but we made sure we postponed any celebrations and bottled up our feelings until after our own match. Just look at how we reacted after we won.
We were optimistic in our camp. The feeling is of course very different when you succeed on home soil, the joy is completely different, amongst our own fans. So we talked a lot before the game that it was key for us to seal qualification on our home ground and thankfully that’s what happened.
This squad has managed to achieve what the ‘Golden Generation’ of Mohamed Abou-Trika and Co. weren’t able to. How do you explain the success of this particular group?
I was part of other generations that tried to qualify for previous World Cups, I was there at the Algeria game in Egypt and the one in Sudan, and I was there for all the qualifiers and I feel that perhaps we weren’t lucky in that Algeria game. After the first game maybe we celebrated too soon and in everyone’s minds we felt we had already qualified, even though that wasn’t the case.
It’s similar to how people felt after the Uganda-Ghana match, but people like (our goalkeeper) Essam El Hadary, who was also at the Algeria game, he spoke to the players and warned them from getting too excited too soon.
He said, ‘The same thing happened with Algeria, we celebrated too much after winning the first game but we lost the second one, so we don’t want to do the same thing this time around’. So let’s keep it together until after the Congo game’, and that’s what we did.
I think we just got luckier with this generation, and we worked so hard. I could never say anything negative about the previous generation because it included legends and they were all so talented.
This generation is young and it lacks experience so all credit to these players for pulling this off. And credit to the technical staff under the guidance of Hector Cuper. He has extensive experience in such situations, he played lots of finals and lots of crucial games so he’s really experienced. He spoke to us before the game and told us, ‘We have to stay laser-focused and go out there looking to win the three points. Nothing else matters, only the three points. You have to remain calm on the pitch.’
He spoke to the players in the right way and he managed the game in a special way. And that’s how experienced coaches separate themselves from the rest in situations like this.
Cuper has been heavily criticised about his defensive style and has come under fire throughout the qualification process…
Every coach, no matter the results, he will always face criticism. But I find this criticism completely misplaced and misguided. You’re a manager brought in to coach a national team, with a mandate to take this team to the World Cup. And you have achieved that directive. Whichever way you’ve managed to accomplish that, that doesn’t matter.
So of course, credit to him for this achievement and his name will be carved in the history of Egyptian football, that he has accomplished what hasn’t been done in 28 years, him and captain Mahmoud El Gohary in 1990, and the coach before that back in 1934.
Hector Cuper’s name will remain forever in Egyptian football history. I hope the Egyptian FA thinks twice before making any decisions about his contract after Russia. I truly hope he remains with the national team for a long time because he is very special. All the players like him, and so do all staff members. I really hope they renew his contract after the World Cup.
Salah is considered a national hero, as his team-mate what can you tell us about him away from his on-pitch heroics?
Mohamed outside of football is a very respectable person. He is close to God and is a very generous man, who does a lot of philanthropic work. And God is rewarding him for all the good he does in the world. He’s also a hard-worker.
I’ve known him for a very long time, since he was at Arab Contractors club when he was young, and we both hail from the same town. So I’ve known him since he was a kid, playing football in our hometown. He’s a great person and he’s very popular amongst the players, who have helped him a lot on the pitch as well.
As you said, the squad mainly consists of young players, is it fair to expect more from them in Russia 2018?
There’s still plenty of time but we must prepare very well and surely the FA will make sure we play friendlies against strong teams in the build-up so we can get used to facing big teams. Because I feel that recently we’ve only been playing African sides so we need to get used to playing European and South American teams.
We need the exposure, especially considering that many of our players are young and need the experience of playing against teams of a higher level. That will be very useful for us when we are at the World Cup.
The FA will probably wait for the draw to see what kind of teams will land in our group so they can plan our friendlies.
Is there a particular team you dream of facing at the World Cup?
Many teams, there’s Spain, Brazil, Germany… lots of strong teams and of course we all dream to face such teams but every team at the World Cup will have its own stars and its own history so we’re looking forward to facing them all I must say.
What does the possibility of playing in a World Cup mean to you personally?
It’s been our dream all our life, to compete at such a huge stage. I’ve played qualifiers in the past and I’ve always wanted to achieve this. Look at Essam El Hadary, who will be 45 years old next year, he’s been fighting all his life to make the World Cup and he’s still fighting to accomplish something special in his career. I hope I end up being one of the people playing in Russia.
Do you feel there’s pressure on you now to prove you deserve a place on that Russia-bound squad?
The pressure is probably less now. Now I’m playing with some ease, the dream has been accomplished and now I feel I can enjoy myself on the pitch more. There’s something special to look forward to in the summer but the pressure of qualification was huge and now it’s less.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi honoured the team in a ceremony the night of the match. What was that like?
Everyone in Egypt had been waiting for this and the President could feel the pressure that was on our shoulders and after all this suffering, he wanted to make sure he honoured us. When he met us after the last Africa Cup of Nations, the first thing he told us was ‘the World Cup is next’. Meeting him and getting honoured in that ceremony was very special for all of us.
You moved from Hull to Aston Villa during the summer, what has the transition been like for you after so many years with the Tigers?
After getting relegated with Hull last season I felt that I needed a change because I had been with Hull for several years. I was searching for a new challenge and that was the most important thing for me. Aston Villa was a very big thing for me to approach me, and of course I had been with Steve Bruce for a long time so that was also one of the reasons why I joined them. He’s someone I’m very familiar with and I know how he works having spent time with him at Hull. So that was a big incentive as well.
So in the summer I took this step. I feel this year is a huge year for me – the first goal was achieved, which was to qualify with Egypt to the World Cup, and now the next challenge is to get promoted with Aston Villa to the Premier League insha’Allah.
John Terry also joined Villa this season. What’s it been like having him as a team-mate?
John Terry is a valuable addition to any team. He captained Chelsea for a very long time and he’s used to winning titles. He’s a big addition for us and he’s our captain. His words are always a big motivation for us and having him with us on the pitch is huge for any team. He’s been having a great season so far, and as a captain, be it on the pitch or off it, he’s a valuable addition.