By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Egypt have finally found their Holy Grail, overcoming the disappointment of decades of heartbreaking failure to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1990.
Qualifying had become an obsessive weight on the team, whose repeated failures in the World Cup came in stark contrast to their record-breaking achievements in the African Nations Cup, where they repeatedly won the continental championship. Egypt reached the African playoffs for the last World Cup but a 6-1 hammering in Ghana proved yet another huge setback and when they were paired with the Ghanaians again in qualifying for the 2018 finals, more disappointment was anticipated.
But Ghana started the campaign poorly, including being beaten 2-0 in Alexandria, and Egypt were able to keep their noses in front in the group, even after losing in Uganda and producing unconvincing displays in their last two home matches.
Giddy celebrations followed after qualification was secured with one game to play, with Mohamed Salah tucking away a late penalty to beat Congo 2-1 at home and avoid having to go to Ghana in their last match to try and secure a World Cup place. Liverpool’s Salah was the talisman of the campaign, ending as the leading scorer in the African preliminaries with five goals.
He is among a growing contingent of English-based players in the side, including Ahmed Elmohamady of Aston Villa, Mohamed Elneny of Arsenal, Ahmed Hegazy from West Bromwich Albion and the promising Ramadan Sobhi of Stoke City.
Argentine-born coach Hector Cuper has managed a smooth transition from the aging generation he inherited into a much younger outfit but still relies on the veteran Essam El Hadary in goal. El Hadary turns 45 in January and if he plays in Russia will set a new record for the tournament's oldest participant.
(Editing by John O'Brien)