There is a reason why matches like this one are rare. More, perhaps, is the pity. But it is not just bull-headed, brass-necked conservative imperialism which sees 50 percent of the ten South American teams qualifying for the World Cup Finals, whilst just six of CAF’s 55 members will represent Africa next summer. The relative quality and development of football is such that, for the most part, a significant gulf still exists in the relative standards of play and according expectations. It is, in other words, statistical probability as much as geography which keeps Brazil and Egypt apart on football fields.
Herein lies the real joy of a Confederations or World Cup, of course. Nevertheless, it is perhaps only natural that one nation will dominate the build-up chatter, with every prediction or assumption seeing them as comfortable winners. For better or worse, Brazil loomed so large over this tie that on paper, it was tempting to forget about Egypt entirely. It’s fair to say that such a luxury will not now be afforded to Italy, their next opponents, in the build up to their match on Thursday.
Focusing on Brazil was not such a bad idea, though, as their relationship with the Confederations Cup is a complex and textured one. Two tournaments ago, in 2001, a struggling Seleção arrived in the Far East facing perhaps their first ever failure to qualify for a World Cup Finals tournament. Emerson Leao’s young and untried team gave the established players a rest and, ultimately, gave the Brazilian FA enough of an excuse to move Leao aside after a deeply uninspired first round exit. For the 2005 event, Carlos Alberto Pereira took a full-strength side to Germany and duly swashbuckled their way to their second Confederations Cup title, a 4-1 semi-final win over bitter rivals Argentina included in the bargain.
Of course, another of the joys of international football is the unpredictabilty. Within a year of Leao’s dismissal, Brazil were back in Japan under the guidance of Luis Felipe Scolari to win their fifth World title in some style. A year after their Confederations Cup win of four years ago, however, a tired and unimaginative Brazil side slipped meekly out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals, their much heralded “magic square” of forwards making so little impression that you’d be forgiven for not remembering which four players made it up.
Brazil are now coached by Dunga, a former player (and World Cup winner) of some distinction. For all the mumbled complaints about his overly ‘European’ reliance on defence-minded play, Brazil currently sit top of the CONMEBOL qualifying group and are just a couple of wins away from booking a repeat flight to South Africa in 2010. Dunga’s new-look team – shorn of a lot of the misfiring Big Names who failed to shine three summers ago – nevertheless contains a lot of household name players, stars throughout club football in Europe. Their biggest name is Kaka who was, thanks to Real Madrid’s summer of extravagance, last week subject of the most expensive transfer fee in history for about twenty minutes. However, the squad also contains a number of players who have the potential to match him in the years to come. Certainly, they are a team on form, the twenty-three man squad in South Africa for the next fortnight arrived having beaten Uruguay and Paraguay in their latest World Cup qualifying rounds at the beginning of this month and unbeaten in their last eleven matches.
Egypt, on the other hand, are struggling. They sit 3rd out of 4 in CAF qualifying’s final round, after a stuttering start to their qualifying campaign. A 0-0 draw with Zambia back in March was compounded by a 3-1 reverse last week in Algeria. It’s surprising, particularly considering the Pharoah’s recent pedigree. Last year they won a second consecutive African Cup of Nations, whilst their leading league side Al-Ahly (who this site saw take on Internacional of Brazil in Tokyo for the World Club Cup semi-final in December 2006) are Africa’s most decorated club side. Their recent spluttering on the pitch is further complicated by their talented yet volatile star players. Mido has been left out of the squad altogether after numerous run-ins with the coach, whilst Amr Zaki – coveted by half of the top clubs in Europe if the rumours are true – misses out due to a hamstring injury sustained in the defeat against Algeria. This left Mohammed Zidan of Borussia Dortmund (one of only four of the Egyptian team to play outside of their national league) as the only striker in their squad with any significant international experience, his 21st cap won last week. However, in their 34-year old captain Ahmed Hassan, they boast the tournament’s most capped player.
Egypt, then, are no New Zealand. However, this made little difference to the match’s opening, Kaka opening the scoring for Group B after just five minutes, dinking a right side cross deftly over Said and Gomaa on the edge of the 18 yard box; his placed finish was a formality. Perhaps less expected was the spirited Egyptian response, well-crafted midfield passing fashioning a break down the right flank and Mohammed Zidan easily heading the equaliser from Abu Trika’s fine cross just four minutes later. Brazil then took their turn to find a fast response, and as Luis Fabiano deftly heading in Elano’s free kick, there had been three goals in the first 11 minutes. Brazil, settled by the restoration of their lead, settled in to a steadier rhythm this time, adding a third as Juan headed in powerfully from Elano’s corner, following a Dani Alves free kick being tipped over the bar. Indeed, it should have been Juan’s second, as from a similar chance 15 minutes before, the Roma defender headed over.
For all of this, though, it was Egypt who enjoyed a slight majority of possession and created far more chances from open play, whilst Brazil were reliant on set pieces for the majority of their best chances. Indeed, Egypt so nearly pegged back the Champions with the final touch of the first period, but Hosni’s header just went the wrong side of the crossbar.
And that should have been that. The fact that it was not is all credit to the Egyptian team, who looked a match for their Brazilian counterparts throughout. Hassan Shehata introduced Ahmed Eid early on for Ahmed Hassan, and he added a vital extra creative spark for the African side. Within minutes, more fine work by Abu Trika, this time down the left wing teed up Middlesbrough’s Mohammed Shawky on the edge of the area to power home a goal on 54 minutes. Less than 60 seconds later, Egypt were level. Slipshod midfield work by Brazil allowed the outstanding Abu Trika to slide the ball through for Zidan, who finished with gusto. Brazil looked shellshocked, and nothing that the worried-looking Dunga – in a fetching grey woolen polo neck sweater to keep out the chill of the Southern Hemispheric winter – could do seemed to change the balance of the play. Brazil were perhaps the more likely to find something from a sudden, one-off creative spark, but Egypt looked just as able to win the game.
As the minutes ticked by and with history waiting, an understandably nervy-looking Egypt began to let Brazil trickle back into the contest more and more. The South Americans continued to fashion their best efforts from corners and free kicks, but some last ditch defending looked to be enough to keep them at bay. However, with just injury time remaining on the clock, the pressure became too much and Egypt’s substitute Ahmed Al-Muhammadi could only keep out a headed effort from a left-side corner with his arm. English referee Howard Webb, no stranger to last minute penalty calls at this level, consulted with his assistants before administering the coup de grace – a red card for Al-Muhammadi and a penalty kick, duly dispatched by Kaka, gifting Brazil a rather fortuitous victory.
A breathless and exciting beginning, then, to this year’s Confederations Cup’s trickiest group. Brazil next play the United States on Thursday afternoon, and have much still to prove. Whether or not it was their own shortcomings or Egypt’s organisation, flair and team spirit which caused them such a scare will be most likely answered later that day, as the Pharoahs take on the World Champions. Either way, it would be a very churlish Brazil fan who criticised Dunga’s ‘European’ style this evening. They were a practice set piece or two away from a notable defeat. But not an embarrassing one. On this form, it’s hard to imagine that Egypt will not be back in South Africa again in 12 months.