According to the US State Department, there are 194 countries in the world. FIFA, as an international organization, acknowledges even more countries than the US, honoring 209 different nations and peoples the distinct privilege of having their own national team to support and cherish. Of those 209 national teams, only 32 teams qualify for the World Cup every four years. In Asia, 43 teams started the qualification process; in Africa, 40 teams; in North America, 35 teams; in South America, 9 teams; in Oceania, 11 teams; and in Europe 53 teams. That is 191 teams, 191 nations, who have been vying for qualification over the past three years. As of today, January 17, 2013, 266 days until the start of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, there are 10 teams that have already qualified, leaving 50 other teams vying for the last 22 spots.
Now that we are done with all of the boring numbers, let’s get down to it: of all of these 191 teams, there is only one team in the entire world that has won every single one of its qualifying matches. No draws, no losses, all victories. Care to take a guess? Messi and Argentina? Ronaldo and Portugal? What about Xavi, Iniesta, and the rest of the Spanish national team?
Wrong. Wrong. And Wrong.
The correct answer would be Egypt.
The only team in the world that has won every single one of its qualifiers belongs to the tumultuous, chaotic, riot-crazy land of the Pharaohs.
Sadly, when most people think of Egypt and soccer, they don’t think of a team on the brink of qualification or a young group of talented players, led by their fearless, new American manager.
Instead, people think of the Port Said Massacre, a post-match riot that saw 79 people die and over 1,000 more sustain serious injuries. They recall the violent overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They remember the recent uprising against Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, just a few months ago.
It goes without saying that Egypt has not been the best place to live, let alone the best place to be an international athlete, in the past few years.
Nevertheless, throughout this violence, this rioting and killing and oppression, the Egyptian national team has been sliding by, under the radar, serving as a symbol of hope for this beleaguered country. Behind their fearless American coach, Bob Bradley, who, instead of shying away from the challenges that Egypt faces, not only as a national team, but also as a country, has very boldly emerged as a true leader, and somewhat of a hero, in Egypt.
Since the overthrowing of Mubarak, not only did the Egyptian football league decrease somewhat in stature, but it also was forced to cancel league play after the Port Said Massacre. This has made things very hard for the Egyptian national team and Bob Bradley, as far as keeping players in shape, evaluating young players, and finding some of the potential new young stars in Egyptian football. In the two years between winning the African Cup of Nations in 2010 and not even qualifying for the African Cup in 2012, Egypt dropped 55 places in the FIFA international standings, from 9th place in the world to 64th. Just like that.
By bringing much needed energy, hands-on training, and a sense of accountability to this Egyptian national team, a team historically rich with football talent, Bob Bradley, the former United States national team manager, has guided his new Egyptian squad back into relevancy, his new adopted country back onto the international sporting map.
Playing most of their home qualifiers in an empty stadium in the beach town of El-Gouna, while also in the midst of an overthrow of the Morsi regime, the Egyptian national team nonetheless managed to go to undefeated in their qualifying group, winning all 6 games, home and away, against Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Mozambique, with a goal differential of +9.
The team’s success is in large part due to the inspired play of 21 year old Basel FC striker, Mohamed Salah. Salah, one of the young rising stars of European football, who heard offers from a plethora of major European clubs over the summer, is currently the leading scorer in African qualifying, with a whopping six goals in six games. “We have been playing in difficult circumstances since the start of the qualifiers because of the football stoppage in Egypt and the problems facing the country,” said Salah about the trials of qualification. “But the most important thing will be to have luck on our side and think about the people who are eager for happiness. A qualification for the World Cup is the biggest thing that could make the people happy.”
Despite being selected earlier this week to play perennial African powerhouse, Ghana, in the final, two-leg matchup of qualifying, Bob Bradley, along with the rest of Egypt, still seems optimistic and eager to make it to their third World Cup appearance, their first since 1990: “We are the strongest team in the group. We are not afraid of confronting Ghana.”
After missing out on the World Cup in dramatic fashion in 2010, enduring a coaching change, and living in the midst of multiple political uprisings, a massacre, and a stoppage of Egyptian league play, the Egyptian people and the Egyptian players are ready to redeem their country, unite the people of their trifling nation, and prove to the world that the Pharaohs belong in the World Cup.