A tough qualifying contest
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) section of the 1990 FIFA World Cup qualification saw teams competing for two berths in the final tournament in Italy.
26 nations in total entered the qualifying stage.
FIFA rejected the entries of Mauritius and Mozambique due to their outstanding debts, leaving 24 nations to contest the qualifying spots.
Lesotho, Rwanda and Togo withdrew after the draw for the first round, which took place on 12 December 1987, before playing a match.
Libya won their first-round tie and advanced to the second round, but withdrew halfway through that stage, meaning all their results in the group were annulled.
Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and Zaire, the eight best-ranked teams according to FIFA, received byes and advanced to the Second Round directly. The remaining sixteen teams were paired up to play knockout matches on a home-and-away basis. The winners would advance to the Second Round.
The eight winners from the first round were joined by the eight seeded teams and divided into four groups of four teams each. The teams would play against each other on a home-and-away basis. The group winners would advance to the Final Round.
The four remaining teams – Egypt, Algeria, Cameroon and Tunisia were paired up to play knockout matches on a home-and-away basis. The winners would qualify.
Cameroon overcame the Tunisia threat both at home and away matches, while the contest between Algeria and Egypt was an eventful one.
The historic but hostile affair
In April 1989, Interpol finally dropped an arrest warrant against one of the continent’s greatest football heroes, Lakhdar Belloumi, scorer of the winning goal in Algeria’s sensational 2-1 win over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup.
Finally, he could travel outside Algeria again.
He probably won’t risk going to Cairo, though, because of what happened in 1989.
He would be lucky to get out alive.
The first meeting between the two nations in Mauritius on October 8, 1989, ended in a goalless draw, which means a point in Egypt would have taken Algeria to Italia 90, their third finals in succession.
The build-up to the match was hostile, as the two countries already had a healthy dislike of each other.
In front of 1, 25, 000 partisan crowd, Hossam Hassan scored the only goal of the match and ensured Egypt’s entry in the World Cps for the first time in the history.
But the Algerians felt that the referee was biased towards Egypt and when the final whistle went the officials were harassed and surrounded by the entire Algerian contingent, players, coaches, officials. Despite the best efforts of the police it still took the referee eight minutes to reach the safety of the dressing rooms.
Then the Algerians turned to the VIP area and heaved plants, dirt and earthenware pots into the seats. At a post-match reception, Belloumi ‘bottled’ the Egyptian team doctor, who was blinded in one eye. Belloumi was back in Algeria when an Egyptian court later convicted him in his absence. He was sentenced to imprisonment and fined.
The relationship between the two countries only soared.
Taming the Dutch
Egypt’s first match in the World Cup in Italy was against the European Champions and hot favourites Holland. That Holland team was studded with the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Kieft, Winter and co. Egypt had no chance against such a brilliant unit, but the victory of Cameroon at San Siro against Argentina might have inspired them to dish out a stupendous fighting display at Palermo on that night of June 12, 1990.
Magdy Abdelghani said in an interview to FIFA.com, “We indeed went to Italy determined to perform honourably, even if the draw had put us in an extremely tough group. The Netherlands had won the European Championship two years earlier, England had excellent players with enormous experience, and Ireland played with possibly unsurpassed physical power. Our first encounter was against the Netherlands, but at that time it was difficult to follow their biggest names on television. So, when we saw those towering players face to face – that elite group of world stars, such as Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Koeman – the feeling was: how can we hold out, and what will the score be today”?
As soon as the match started it was Egypt who outweighed the European Champions. Abdelghani, Hassan and others started to make the Dutch dance on the pitch with their determination, energy and skill.
In the second half, Kieft gave Holland the breakthrough, but Egypt kept on attacking the opponents.
At the fag end of the match, Egypt were awarded a penalty and Abdelghani equalized from the penalty spot to earn a respectable draw.
As Abdelghani said, “In football, showing courage on the pitch makes you perform well. The doubts we had before the game were normal. The technical disparity was huge, but we were not there just to make up the numbers, especially after the really tough training camps we had in our preparation. We also had a fierce will and determination. The players agreed that it would be a battle between 11 players on each side, and that we’d expend every last ounce of energy in the fight. As the game progressed, we grew more confident, unlike the Dutch, who seemed tense after failing to create many opportunities or score. That was until they scored their first goal after a small mistake”.
“We weren’t disheartened by their goal. We went on the attack and created several opportunities before being awarded the penalty. At that moment, some team-mates approached to encourage me and wish me good luck. Coach Mahmoud el Gohary had designated me as the first option for a spot-kick, but as I hadn’t expected us to be awarded one, it took me by surprise. I placed the ball on the spot and decided on the same side that I’d gone for on many previous occasions. I eyed the keeper and then fired it to his right. We scored and equalised, and there was jubilation the length and breadth of our country. It was a priceless goal that earned us a point in a big game against the European champions and further boosted our confidence”.
The goal of Abdelghani was a historic one as he said, “A journalist from our delegation told me after the match that I’d become the first Egyptian player to score in a World Cup and at the Olympics. Years earlier, at the Los Angeles Olympics, I’d scored in a match against Costa Rica, which we won. It was really wonderful to make history with such a double accomplishment”.
The ultra-defensive mindset against the Republic of Ireland
The match against Jack Charlton’s Ireland was a cagey affair where the Irish dominated the game, but failed to breach the Egyptian defence and get past their goalkeeper Ahmed Shobair, who had a fantastic day at the office.
But Egypt’s ultra-defensive mindset – which involved constantly passing the ball back to the goalkeeper, who would pick it up, walk about a bit, and promptly hoof it downfield – earned them harsh criticisms.
There was nothing in the rules saying they couldn’t do this again and again,
A crowd of 33,000 booed and whistled after the hectic, unimaginative game.
Jack Charlton blamed Egypt for playing with no attack plan.
“The Egyptians had come not to play a match,” he said. “They never created a chance.
“I didn’t like anything about the game, the way the Egyptians played or their time-wasting tactics.”
The Egyptian tactics let IFAB change the rules. IFAB outlaw goalkeepers handling the ball when passed to by a team-mate is, tactically, the most important rule change in the history of the sport; even though, it is mistakenly thought that Denmark’s extreme use back pass in Euro 1992 forced the change of rules. As a matter of fact, that match between Egypt and Republic of Ireland forced the IFAB to think about it and as the use of such a negative tactic started to dominate over creative play throughout the tournament, a change in the rule was a matter of time.
But Egypt did not mind at all as all the four teams were hanging with 2 points each and if they could tame England in the last group match, history would be made.
Defeated but respect was earned
In the match against England, Egypt tried to lessen their negative approach, but that English side of 1990 under Sir Bobby Robson was a very good unit. Their never say die attitude was one of the highlights of that event. Mark Wright scored the most decisive goal and Egypt lost the match. But they left the tournament with their heads high.
Abdelghani said, “In the crucial last group fixture, we lost 1-0 to England and missed out on the chance to reach the second round, but we left the tournament with heads held high”.
Since that memorable event in Italy, Egypt failed to qualify in the mega-event until 2018. These days, superstars like Mohamed Salah is regarded as the King of Egypt, but that class of 1990 would always be remembered with enough respect.