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Egypt’s fans will light up the World Cup

The best player in the world may not end up in Russia next summer, but the best fans, after a gap of 28 years, will be. By John Duerden.

Organisers of the 2018 World Cup in Russia should rejoice. They may end up without Lionel Messi and Argentina next summer but they will welcome Egypt and what could be the best fans in the world. That is more than enough consolation.

Anybody who has spent any time in Cairo will have tales of being caught up in impromptu football celebrations on the street when one of the city’s clubs have enjoyed some success. Fans lean out of cars to shake hands with passers-by, strangers high-five strangers and those nights are nights to just stroll around one of the most fascinating places in the world and soak it all in. Cairo is unusually friendly for such a big city anyway but on nights like those it becomes truly magical.

One can only imagine – and watch online over and over again – the scenes in the ancient capital this weekend as the Pharaohs booked a spot in a first World Cup since 1990.  Mo Salah’s late penalty, the Liverpool player must have nerves of pyramid proportions, gave the team a win over Congo and a busy summer to look forward to.

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The third round of qualification went according to plan. In a group also containing Uganda and Congo, coach Hector Cuper, one Argentine who will definitely be in Russia next June, knew that going to Ghana for the final game needing a point or points would be the slippiest of banana skins. Instead, Egypt have their tickets stamped before that trip to Accra.

A fine 2-1 win in front of 70,000 fans in Congo was a perfect start and the fact that the visitors had to come from behind shows the mental strength that exists in the  ranks. The following 2-0 win over Ghana really put Egypt in control of their group but it was the way the team bounced back from a sole defeat at the hands of Uganda that impressed. Gaining revenge against the East Africans at home brought Russia into sight with the other nations in the group taking points off each other.

Not far short of 90,000 fans flocked to Alexandria for the game against Congo. With Ghana and Uganda drawing 0-0 (though the frustrated Black Stars lodged an official protest with FIFA after their injury-time goal was ruled out for offside in Kampala), then three points would be enough. Salah delivered the goods with his second of the night and fifth strike of the round. The important fact was the one that says the team made it to the promised land.

The message coming from Cairo and elsewhere in the country is that Egypt are back where they belong and they are excited about that. We should be excited about it too. For those nations drawn with the seven-time African champions, they could be in for a real treat. The team has some players to get the pulse racing but what really captures the heart are the fans.

Egyptian fans are special. I will never forget their arrival at the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the South African city of Bloemfontein, they came in their numbers and did something that no other set of fans did in that competition or the World Cup a year later. It was the second day of the competition and the world was still getting to grips with the unusual buzzing sound that emanates from South African football stadiums.

The noise they made drowned out the constant din of the vuvezelas and forced the locals to march to the Egyptian tune and not the other way around. At the end of a sunny afternoon, many of the South Africans who had come out to support Brazil were cheering for their confederation cousins at the far north of the giant continent.

It helped that they came back from 4-1 down at the break to 4-3 just ten minutes after the break. It was a roller-coaster game and roller-coaster atmosphere. If Egyptian fans can do that in the Confederations Cup, what they can bring to the World Cup is a prospect that should excite everyone.

There has been plenty written about the potential absence of Argentina and Lionel Messi. That would be sad but the World Cup is a global event. Fans around the world can see the superstar in action for Barcelona every week but what they are less familiar with are the supporters that Egypt will bring.

The best player in the world may not be in Russia but the best fans, after a gap of 28 years, will be.

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