Talisman Mohamed Salah’s shoulder injury loomed like a dark cloud over Egypt’s World Cup campaign as they were quickly eliminated despite harboring high hopes of making an impact on their return to the finals after a 28-year absence.
The uncertainty surrounding the Liverpool forward’s participation after he suffered shoulder ligament damage in last month’s Champions League final, had a huge impact on both preparations and team confidence coming into the tournament.
“It would have been a lot more desirable to have had him with us as we prepared,” mused coach Hector Cuper, whose meticulous pre-tournament preparations in Switzerland were skipped by Salah as the striker battled to be fit for Russia.
The ‘will he, won’t he play’ speculation extended past the opening game, where Cuper took a view that the match against Uruguay would be their toughest Group A assignment and opted not to risk Salah with two less taxing fixtures to follow.
Salah’s subsequent comeback was expected to lift Egypt’s performance up several gears and although he scored against Russia and Saudi Arabia, they lost both to limp home amid bitter disappointment and still without a win at the finals.
There had been high expectations after Egypt qualified last year, ramped up after the North Africans were handed what most fans considered a favorable draw and with Salah’s remarkable goal-scoring exploits for Liverpool adding fuel to the fire.
Since their last appearance in 1990, Egypt dominated African football in both the African Nations Cup and at club level but botched successive World Cup qualifying campaigns until reaching the finals became an obsessive aim for the country.
Veteran Argentine-born coach Cuper delivered the Holy Grail, whipping a relatively inexperienced squad into a workmanlike outfit, which served primarily to exploit Salah’s speed on the counter attack.
However, an over-reliance on the 26-year-old became all too apparent as Egyptians recoiled in horror when he landed awkwardly on his shoulder in Kiev, in a tumble whose painful outcome effectively sabotaged their hopes.
The team now heads home to an uncertain future with Cuper set to depart and the domestic game in turmoil as clubs feel the financial pinch of spectator restrictions imposed by authorities in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising some seven years ago.