Elmo's long road to Russia

“To be honest, it was the most difficult five minutes in my career.”

Ahmed Elmohamady had just entered the Borg El Arab Stadium pitch as an 86th-minute substitute, hoping to see out a 1-0 victory for Egypt against Congo in Africa’s Group E that would see his country through to their first FIFA World Cup in almost three decades.

Then, Arnold Bouka burst clear of the Aston Villa wideman and finished emphatically to level things up. You could hear a pin drop around the country, let alone inside the stadium.

Elmohamady had flashbacks. He was part of the team that lost 1-0 to Algeria to miss out on South Africa 2010, and played in the horror show 6-1 play-off defeat to Ghana which effectively eliminated them from Brazil 2014.

But this time would be different.

“If the game finished 1-1 – we would have to wait until the last game, a tough match against Ghana away,” Elmohamady told FIFA.com. “We wanted to finish it in Egypt. We just thought about scoring a goal.”

And that is precisely what happened. Central defender Ahmed Hegazi, on the left wing in stoppage time, lofted a ball into the Congolese penalty area and Trezeguet was bundled over. A spot kick was awarded, which star man Mohamed Salah converted. Cue jubilation across the nation.

“To see 85,000 people in the stadium celebrate, with 95 million people watching the game around the country, it was very important for us to get this done,” Elmohamady said. “It was a huge thing for the country. You could see how people celebrated after the game, in the streets and in the cities.”

As a result of the 2-1 victory against Les Diables Rouges, that final game against Ghana became inconsequential, with Egypt reaching their first global finals since 1990. After his disappointments against Algeria in 2009 and Ghana in 2013, what was different this time?

“First, I think it’s down to the manager,” Elmohamady said. “Hector Cuper is one of the greatest coaches we’ve ever had in the national team. Also, I think the experience in the team is important. You see the goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary - he’s 45. In the camps, in the games, he’s talking to the players and giving all of his experience to his team-mates.

“The Africa Cup of Nations also helped the younger players get some experience. You can see that in the games that we won against some good teams like Ghana.”

One of those players perhaps bridging the gap between youth and experience is Egypt’s undoubted talisman: Mo Salah.

“He’s a great lad, he played a big part in these qualifiers” Elmohamady smiled. “I’ve known him for a long time, since he was young. He’s improved a lot: physically, mentally. You see the way he plays with Liverpool, his achievements are amazing. He’s been good for us in the national team. I hope he can keep the form he’s in now until the World Cup – it would be fantastic for us.”

The anticipation for Russia 2018 has been close to a lifetime in the making for the Egyptian winger. ‘Elmo’, as he is affectionately known, was less than three years old when the Pharaohs last graced the World Cup. He says he has only vague memories of Italy 1990.

“We always remember the penalty, the only goal we scored at that World Cup” Elmohamady said. “The guy who scored it, Magdi Abdelghani, works at the Egyptian FA, so every time we see him he’s just talking about his goal. Hopefully someone else can score in Russia so he can stop talking so much!”

The Final Draw saw the Egyptian squad spread across the globe communicate via their national team WhatsApp group. The consensus was satisfaction at being pitted in Group A alongside hosts Russia, two-time champions Uruguay and local rivals Saudi Arabia.

“It’s not an easy group, but it’s not as difficult as it could have been,” Elmohamady said. “The target is to go through the group stage and then after that, we’ll see which team we can get. Hopefully we can go as far as possible as it would mean a lot to Egyptian fans. Loads of fans will go to Russia, so hopefully we can help them celebrate as much as possible.”

Uruguay: “They’re a big team, in the opener. They have some great players like Luis Suarez.” Russia: “The game will be difficult, with them playing at home and the fans supporting them.”

Saudi Arabia: “It’s a derby game. The last time we played them in a competitive game was in the Confederations Cup and we lost 5-1, so it’s going to be difficult.”

The road to Russia has been incredibly long for ‘Elmo’ since watching Abdelghani’s penalty against the Netherlands almost 28 years ago: despair against Algeria, then Ghana and that crazy conclusion against Congo. However, the game against Uruguay in Ekaterinburg on 15 June is the first step on another exciting path.

Originally published by FIFA.com

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