PORT-GENTIL, Gabon, Jan 28 – Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final between Egypt and Morocco is set to be a classic battle of managerial minds, bringing together a two-time winner of the trophy in Herve Renard and wily Hector Cuper.
While Frenchman Renard has become a fixture on the African scene, and a successful one at that, the 61-year-old Argentine Cuper is sampling a major international tournament for the first time.
Appointed in 2015, Cuper was charged with the daunting task of making the record seven-time African champions a force again.
A first appearance at the World Cup since 1990 is, he has admitted, the “big objective.”
But returning to the Cup of Nations for the first time since they won a third consecutive trophy in 2010 came first.
Cuper did that and he has steered them through to the knockout phase by making the Pharaohs the kind of side that nobody likes playing against.
Egypt did not concede a goal in the group stage in Gabon, following a 0-0 draw with Mali by winning 1-0 against Uganda and Ghana, both times thanks to flashes of inspiration from star man Mohamed Salah.
“Now modern football is always like attacking football, full-backs always high, but he is a bit different, a bit old-school,” Egypt’s Ahmed Elmohamady, of Premier League Hull City, told AFP.
Hazem el Hawary is an Egyptian FA board member and the head of the Pharaohs’ delegation in Gabon, just as he was when they won the 1998 Cup of Nations in Burkina Faso.
He has seen some great Egyptian sides over the last two decades and admits this one is nothing like as talented, but claims the coach can give them the edge.
“Everybody can watch what he is doing. He teaches the players organisation, he has a system that does not change and the players are getting used to it,” El Hawary told AFP.
“That is why we keep improving. Everybody says now Egypt plays with a system. They are not playing haphazard. Our results in the last one year and a half are super.”
– Finally a winner? –
Cuper has overseen 14 wins and just three defeats in 20 games in charge, while Egypt have let in a miserly seven goals in that time.
They no longer play attractive, flowing football, but supporters just want to see their team win again after several years in which social and political strife has had a negative impact on the game.
El Hawary adds: “We like the Brazilian style. People like to see talented football with lots of goals but with Hector Cuper it is different. He plays practical football which makes you win, so people are happy with him.”
Ironically Cuper, a former central defender, has not been seen as a winner in his coaching career.
He was the man who lost a Copa del Rey final and a Cup Winners’ Cup final with Mallorca and two UEFA Champions League finals with Valencia. He also came second in Serie A with Inter Milan in 2002.
More recently he has managed Georgia and modest clubs in Greece, Turkey, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. But this globetrotter now appears settled in Egypt.
In front of the media, Cuper speaks Spanish and his assistant Mahmoud Fayez translates for him, but Elmohamady insists he has no problems getting his message across to the team.
“He speaks some Arabic so it’s ok. He is like an Egyptian man now. He has been for two years in Egypt and he can speak to the players in different situations like if you have problems outside football.”
Recently linked with the manager’s post at Hull, Cuper is fully focused on the Cup of Nations and on being a winner at long last.
If he succeeds, he will be just the second South American coach to lift the the trophy after Otto Gloria, the Brazilian behind Nigeria’s 1980 triumph.