Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
WHEN the Pharaohs of Egypt were drawn to play in the same 2019 AFCON group with the Warriors, the superstitious lot among their fans must have been forgiven, for they feared the worst for their team, in its quest for a first African title in nine years.
Especially, when the two teams’ meeting, which opened this tournament amid an explosion of fireworks on June 21, had to be at the Cairo International Stadium.
The last time the Pharaohs and the Warriors had met, at the same stadium on February 28, 1993, the match virtually signalled the end of Egypt’s quest for a return to the World Cup finals for the second successive tournament.
Having featured at the ‘90 World Cup in Italy, the Pharaohs were one of the favourites to take the three African slots to the global football showcase in the United States after finding themselves in an initial qualifying group that featured Zimbabwe, Angola and Togo.
A 1-2 defeat in Harare on December 20 1992, didn’t appear to be fatal to their cause, given they were winning virtually all the other matches and the Warriors, crucially, would have to come to Cairo.
And, when that big date came in February 1993, Agent Sawu struck early, after only five minutes, to put the Warriors ahead but two goals, in the same first half by Asharf Raman and the immortal Hossam Hassan, turned things around and the Pharaohs hung on to win 2-1.
However, that only told a part of the story.
With the Cairo International Stadium packed to the rafters with 120 000 fans, before renovations reduced the capacity to 80 000 today, the match was blighted by crowd trouble with Zimbabwe goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and coach Reinhard Fabisch both being struck by missiles thrown from the stands.
Gabonese referee Jean-Fidel Diramba then noted in his match report that he had found the environment to be too hostile, for the Warriors to be given a fair chance to compete, and had only come short of abandoning the game because he didn’t want to provoke the unrest that would have likely followed.
FIFA nullified the result of that game and ordered a replay in the French city of Lyon, with a Frenchman being handed the responsibility to take charge of the match and, after a defensive master-class, the Warriors emerged out of that battle on April 15, 1993, with a goalless draw.
The point was enough to take them top of the table on 10 points, unbeaten in their six group matches in which they won four and drew two games, and two points ahead of the Pharaohs who would have taken pole position had they won against the Warriors.
Back, in those days, a victory earned two, instead of three points.
As Zimbabwe celebrated qualifying for the final phase of the qualifiers, a three-team group that featured Cameroon and Guinea, the Pharaohs were left seething with anger and, more than a quarter-of-a-century later, the events of those two matches are still discussed here.
For some Egyptian fans, a date against the Warriors has come to represent bad luck and, after beating Zimbabwe home and way in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, the Pharaohs still failed to qualify for that tournament after suffering a humiliation in the final qualifying round.
With Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Aboutrika firing on all cylinders, the Pharaohs beat the Warriors 2-1 in Alexandria before the Liverpool superstar struck a hat-trick in a 4-2 win in Harare as Egypt won all their six games in a group that also featured Guinea and Mozambique.
They were then paired against Ghana in the two-legged battle for a place at the 2014 World Cup and 1-6 humiliation in Accra in the first leg, brought back fears of that unlucky charm, when it comes to the Warriors, and a 2-1 victory here was just academic as the Black Stars qualified 7-3 on aggregate.
It was also an era when Egypt failed to qualify for three successive AFCON finals before returning, two years ago, to finish as runners-up in the tournament.
So, when the draw for this AFCON finals was made, and the Pharaohs were paired against the Warriors, the old fears returned for some of their fans.
“I don’t know what it is when we play Zimbabwe, we can win the game but at the end of the day, things just don’t work out for us for one reason or another,’’ said Mohamed Ghaly, an Al Ahly fan, an Uber driver, who said he has been supporting the Pharaohs for the last 30 years.
And, his fears were confirmed when the Pharaohs, after opening this tournament with a nervy 1-0 win over the Warriors, went on to win all their group games against DRC (2-0) and Uganda (2-0) for a perfect record in which they didn’t even concede a goal.
A Round of 16 match against a Bafana Bafana match that had finished third in their group, scoring just once against Namibia and losing the other two, was expected to be an easy game for the Pharaohs but a 0-1 defeat saw the hosts spinning out of the tournament.
It’s only the second time the Pharaohs have failed to win the AFCON title, when they have hosted the tournament, with the other failure coming in 1974 when they finished third while they triumphed in 1959, 1986 and 2006 when they staged the tourney.
It’s also the first time the Pharaohs have been knocked this early in the tournament, which they have won a record seven times, since they suffered a group stage elimination in Tunisia 2004.
And, as fate might have it, their group in Tunisia also featured the Warriors and, after beat
ing them 2-1 in the opening game, the Pharaohs lost 1-2 to Algeria and were held to a goalless draw by Cameroon.