Egypt will be hoping for the same success Ezam himself enjoyed in 1998.
The Africa Cup of Nations is upon us and of course Egypt are one of the favourites for the trophy, but that’s more based on their history in the competition, rather than from a technical stand point.
The technical favourite has different characteristics, most importantly not being absent from the last three editions of the Africa Cup of Nations like Egypt has been. The majority of Egyptian players of this current generation lack experience in the competition.
Only four players, Essam El Hadary, Ahmed Fathi, Ahmed Elmohamady and Mohamed Abdelshafy, have competed in the Africa Cup before and only two or three of them will be on the pitch. Past experience plays a critical role in these kinds of tournaments.
There are several other teams with far more continental experience while the Egyptian squad has about 20 players who have only watched the Cup on TV.
Being a favourite does not necessarily translate into victory. I expect the team to perform well but in terms of actually competing for the title and winning it, I think, realistically, is going to be difficult.
There’s nothing that can replace the experience of actually taking part in this competition because it’s completely different to playing any other games. I vividly remember my first Africa Cup of Nations in 1996; it had a very special feel to it.
Pharaohs coach, Hector Cuper, has had good results with Egypt so far yet he hasn’t escaped criticism (mainly for his defensive philosophy). But this is normal because Egyptians are very critical by nature and Cuper is not the only one to be on the receiving end of this kind of flak; the late Mahmoud El Gohary led Egypt to the World Cup in 1990 yet still came under-fire at times.
I think Egypt’s main goal is very clear right now, which is to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup (for the first time since 1990).
Of course we hope that our return to the Africa Cup is a fruitful one and that we can win but the good results we’ve had so far in the World Cup qualifiers have given us, as a Football Association and a national team, the motivation to seek more. In terms of the players to look out for in the squad, I believe Mohamed Salah, Ramadan Sobhi and Trezeguet (Mahmoud Hassan) will make quite the impact in Gabon.
The current squad has a decent number of players regularly playing abroad, along with stars from Cairo’s Ahly and Zamalek. Cuper knows he has more than enough talent on the team and he has complete faith in them, which is why he discarded several players who have been doing really well domestically in the Egyptian Premier League.
As for the competition we are facing, there are multiple teams that can be considered favourites for the Africa Cup of Nations, with Algeria being the clear frontrunner in my opinion. They have a great group of players, who play well together and are regular starters for big clubs abroad. Senegal and Ivory Coast will also be contenders.
He will be desperate to do well for Gabon as his failure to convert a shootout penalty condemned the 2012 Cup of Nations co-hosts to a quarter-finals defeat by Mali.
SERGE AURIER (Ivory Coast)
The 24-year-old Paris-Saint Germain defender was constantly in the media spotlight last year, but many of the headlines he created had little to do with football.
He labelled team-mate Angel Di Maria a “clown”, made homophobic insults against then PSG coach Laurent Blanc, struck a Paris police officer and made a throat-slitting gesture after an Ivory Coast game.
But the right-back was hailed as a hero last November when he saved the life of a Mali opponent in a World Cup qualifier by preventing the injured footballer swallowing his tongue.
ANDRE AYEW (Ghana)
Sidelined by injury for much of this English Premier League season, the absence of the 27-year-old West Ham United midfielder has been sorely felt by misfiring Ghana.
No Ayew meant there was little creativity from the four-time African champions, who have won only one of their last five Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.
Captain and striker Asamoah Gyan will be particularly happy to see ‘Dede’ back in the national team as his form has been embarrassingly poor, due partly to a lack of quality service.
RIYAD MAHREZ (Algeria)
Being voted 2016 African Footballer of the Year crowned a special spell in the career of the 25-year-old who helped Leicester City to a sensational Premier League title last season.
He was also named Premier League Players’ Player of the Season, BBC African Footballer of the Year and made the FIFA Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or lists too.
But his form, and the results of Leicester and Algeria, have gone off the boil lately, placing pressure on the man who has succeeded Sofiane Feghouli as the football icon of the north African nation.
SADIO MANE (Senegal)
After disastrous 2012 and 2015 Cup of Nations campaigns, success-starved Senegalese supporters hope Liverpool striker Mane can trigger a change in fortunes.
The Teranga Lions lost all three matches five years ago and won only one two years ago as two ventures into central Africa turned sour despite star-stacked squads.
Liverwire attacker Mane, third in the 2016 African Footballer of the Year poll behind Mahrez and Aubameyang, has been consistently impressive for the title-chasing Merseysiders this season.