Time for Egypt to impact outside of Africa
Though Wednesday's match with Argentina in Cairo was officially a friendly for Egypt, the encounter held a greater significance for Hassan Shehata's side. Their first game since retaining the African Cup of Nations represented a true test of where the Pharaohs stand in the footballing order beyond their own continent, coming as it did against the number one ranked country in the world.
On the night, Argentina were too good for the home side. Despite being without the likes of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Juan Riquelme, Alfio Basile's side were in cruise control for much of the game; though they had to wait until its final quarter for goals from Sergio Aguero and Nicolas Burdisso to seal a win that was much-needed, following a World Cup qualifying defeat to Colombia in November.
Before their own net was breached, however, Egypt had competed equally with their opponents and in Mohamed Zidan had the game's most dangerous attacker in the first half. Furthermore, had Mohamed Aboutreika done more with a chance from twelve yards than fire straight at Roberto Abbondanzieri just before Aguero's opener, a more surprising scoreline may have been on the cards.
Although the loss suggests that Egypt have some way to go before they can compete at the very top table, their display, coupled with the momentum inspired by their success in Ghana last month, suggests that, finally, they are ready to build on the form they have consistently shown on their own continent.
Indeed, making an impact outside Africa must now be the primary ambition for Egypt. Winners of two straight Cup of Nations tournaments they may be, but the stigma remains that they have failed to perform on the biggest stage.
Egypt have qualified for the World Cup finals on only two occasions. In 1934, Hungary came out victorious from a single knockout tie, 4-2. While 66 years later, Egypt qualified for Italia '90 and, after drawing with Holland and Ireland in their opening two matches, entered their final game against England with a realistic chance of progressing, only to lose 1-0 to Bobby Robson's men.
With the African qualifying competition for the 2010 World Cup set to commence at the end of May, Shehata has as talented a squad at his disposal as any that has ever represented the Pharaohs. Failure to reach South Africa is not an option, although it won't be easy. With 53 African teams fighting it out for five spots at the finals, Egypt will need to be at their best.
Although the chance of a surprise being sprung by Congo DR, Malawi and Djibouti does exist, round one of qualifying should be manageable for Egypt and is certainly an easier proposition than was faced by the Pharaohs as they attempted to reach the World Cup in Germany, when Ivory Coast and Cameroon were among their opponents.
May 30 is the first and, potentially, most important match date in Group 12. Egypt host DR Congo and, with only the group winner assured of reaching round two (eight of twelve runners-up will also advance), a home win would do much to ensure their progress. Having to go to Kinshasa on September 5 needing a win would be a formidable task against a side that, in Lomano Lua Lua and Shabani Nonda, have impressive offensive capability.
Assuming all goes to plan in round one, the next stage represents a more serious challenge. Twenty teams will be placed into five groups of four, with only the section winners securing a place in South Africa. Given the overall quality of football across the entire African continent, the allocation seems much too low, but that is an argument for another time.
Projecting further ahead, Egypt's chances of making an impact in South Africa would benefit from the football association taking a more worldly view towards preparing the national team for the challenges that lay ahead. Since losing 4-1 to Japan in Osaka in October 2007, the Pharaohs have played five straight friendlies at home and last played an away match against European opposition - Spain - in June 2006.
The fact that the majority of Shehata's squad play their club football in their home country has made Egypt-based friendlies logical but recent successes may make that scenario less obvious in the coming months. The number of foreign-based Egyptian players may be set to increase when the transfer window reopens.
Against Argentina, two of the most effective Pharaohs were Zidan, who plays in Germany for Hamburg, and Mohamed Shawky of Middlesbrough, who also have Mido on their books. Ahmed Hassan, a veteran of seven Cup of Nations tournaments, plays for Anderlecht in Belgium.
In Ghana, the displays of Aboutreika and Ahmed Fathi of Al-Ahly, as well as Al-Zamalek's Amr Zaki and Hosny Abd Rabou of Ismaily will not have gone unnoticed. Should this quartet and possibly other members of the triumphant squad take chances to play in foreign leagues, the national team might be the one that benefits most.
The path to the World Cup finals begins now and Egypt start their journey in good shape. However, if past experience is anything to go by, the Pharaohs will do well to avoid complacency.
With a disciplined coach such as Shehata in charge, there is little chance of that. Two years from now, as important as it might be for Egypt to successful defend their Cup of Nations crown, another tournament scheduled for later in 2010 might be identified as the main priority.