The Egyptian national team and its steadfast American coach, Bob Bradley, have endured political turmoil, the horror of last year’s Port Said massacre, the cancellation of the national league and home games in empty stadiums. They overcame it all to finish atop their World Cup qualifying group with a perfect 6-0-0 record.
But the two-leg African playoff against Ghana, which kicked off Tuesday, appears to be too big an obstacle. The talented Black Stars were dominant in the opener, routing Bradley’s Pharaohs, 6-1, in Kumasi.
Even if Egypt is allowed to host the second game on Nov. 19 (FIFA may move the match if it’s unsatisfied with the security situation), overcoming that five-goal deficit looks impossible.
Ghana is just too strong, and that was evident within seconds at the Baba Yara Stadium. Asamoah Gyan, the forward who scored the extra-time winner against Bradley’s U.S. in the World Cup’s round-of-16 three years ago, wasted an open look at goal just 11 seconds in. In the fifth minute, Gyan atoned and lifted Ghana into the lead, taking a clever feed from Majeed Waris, racing into the penalty area and ripping a perfect shot across the face of goal and past Egyptian netminder Sherif Ekramy.
The visitors were able to move the ball a bit across the patchy field, but nearly every missed pass or poor touched was ruthlessly punished. Waris came close on a 17th-minute header, then Chelsea legend Michael Essien created an own goal with a nifty dribbling run in the 22nd.
Egypt proved resilient and found a lifeline toward the end of the first half. Young FC Basel star Mohamed Salah drew a penalty kick and veteran midfielder Mohamed Aboutreika converted, giving Bradley’s team some hope.
It lasted about three minutes. In the 44th, with the smoke from the visiting fans' flares still settled over the field, Waris finished off an Essien free kick and with it, Egypt.
Gyan, Sulley Muntari (on a dubious penalty) and Christian Atsu netted in the second half to put Ghana on the verge of qualifying for its third consecutive World Cup.
Egypt hasn’t advanced to the finals since 1990. Although it has managed to win four African Cup of Nations titles in the interim, something has always gone awry during qualification for the sport’s biggest event.
This time around, there were more than enough obstacles to send Egypt packing well before Tuesday. Sixteen of the 23 players Bradley brought to Ghana are with Egyptian clubs, which have had no league play since June. And that’s just the beginning.
But the Pharaohs persevered until Ghana proved it was just too good.
The other four African playoff series started over the weekend. Heading into next month’s deciders, Burkina Faso leads Algeria 3-2, Ivory Coast is up over Senegal 3-1, Nigeria is ahead of Ethiopia 2-1, and Tunisia and Cameroon are all square after a 0-0 draw in Radès.STRAUS: World Cup qualifying standings and scenarios for Tuesday's games