07 January 2018 03:22
· Egypt set to play at their third FIFA World Cup
· Previous appearances came at Italy 1934 and Italy 1990
· Drawn in Group A with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay
Hector Cuper is a happy man. You can sense it in his words, in his gestures and in the energy with which he shares his opinions. Then again, he has every reason to be, having guided Egypt to their first FIFA World Cup™ in 28 years and awarded the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Coach of the Year on 4 January.
But there is more to it than that. The veteran Argentinian coach, who has managed such storied clubs as Inter Milan and Valencia, seems to have found his true self once more at the helm of the Pharaohs, saying: “I’ve felt like a football coach again.”
But just how has he engineered this success in North Africa? The 62-year-old revealed the five things that helped his side reach Russia 2018 and which he hopes will enable them to play a major part in the tournament.
First humility, then everything else
"It’s been hugely satisfying to have found such a great bunch of players with so much humility. Nowadays, it’s tough to find that kind of thing in football, where everyone is a star or a celebrity. Yes there are stars here too, but the peculiarities and customs here have made me feel good. I’ve felt like a real football coach.
"Often when you try to convince someone of something, it is difficult, as players have certain idiosyncrasies and hierarchies. And yet, here humility and discipline have prevailed. That's what has brought us success. It’s about the coexistence of those factors and everyone pulling in the same direction."
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Reliable defending the top priority
"The first thing we noticed on arrival was that the team lacked some dependability in terms of defensive duties. Modern football requires you to play the game well, which means keeping possession of the ball and constantly passing and moving. However, in football you also have to defend well, and it was that aspect that characterised the national team.
"I knew we’d score at least once, and sometimes more than once, against teams, but the intention was to try not to concede goals, and it worked out. Perhaps if it hadn’t, we’d have been criticised for being ‘too defensive, etc, etc’. But the reality was the team hadn’t been to a World Cup for 28 years. Maybe it’s not dazzling football, but we’re a humble, hardworking and disciplined team that pays attention to the small details that decide games."
Just another player
Asked about the in-form Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah, Cuper said: "What’s most notable about the role of Mohamed Salah is that he was just another player. What do I mean by that? Well, he scored the majority of the goals but worked and ran just like everyone else. For him it’s always been about the group and he gets no special privileges. That might seem like a small detail but it’s a very significant one.
"He's an enormously talented yet very modest player. People often say the national team is ‘Salah and ten others’ to which I reply, ‘maybe that’s true as he’s someone who can win a match for you, but also because he just sees himself as another player’. That’s something both him and his team-mates understand very well. There have been no ego problems whatsoever."
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A grounded coach
"The best thing about my experience in Egypt is that it’s made me more humble. We coaches have a certain arrogance about us, telling people ‘this is the way it’s done’ or ‘I’ve been doing it for years’. In contrast, here I feel like one more member of the team and that I have to explain and convince people of things, not order them around. I have it to do it without raising my voice.
"As such I’ve had to come down off my pedestal a bit and stop telling people who I’ve coached and what I’ve achieved. I’ve accepted that I’m simply a football coach with a goal to achieve, and that I have to be the most supportive and understanding person so that things go well."
At one with the fans
"The public are thrilled, to the point of getting a little carried away in their enthusiasm. Now they are convinced we will progress from the group phase [in Russia]. I was in a supermarket the other day and someone said to me, ‘we can win the World Cup’. And sure, there’s no law to stop us from doing that, so we’re going to try. Of course, I cannot tell people, ‘No, it’s impossible’, but anyway, our task will not be easy. We need to know who we are to get that across to the public.
"We are going to face some very strong teams, and I’m sure we’ll perform well. We have a large squad and we’re working on minimising our shortcomings. In the World Cup, the smallest mistake could cost you a game, so we’ll be trying to keep them to an absolute minimum. That we the public will continue to be happy with us, because we have an incredible relationship with them and we do not want to damage it."