Few coaches in the world can lay claim to having achieved as many high-profile runner-up finishes as Cuper. With Valencia he lost back-to-back UEFA Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001. A year later, he was on the verge of ensuring Inter Milan collected their first Scudetto since 1989, before a cruel 4-2 loss to Lazio on the final day of the season saw Juventus overtake them – leaving Cuper with yet another 2nd place. Earlier, as coach of Real Mallorca, he saw his team slump to defeat in both the Spanish Cup final and the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Even in his native Argentina his luck was no better, finishing runners-up in the Primera Division with Huracan.
Of course it takes a lot of winning to be in those positions, and likewise, seven time African champions Egypt have disappointed recently because of their previous history of success. They have failed to reach the last three CAF African Cup of Nations after being stunned by modest opponents such as Central African Republic and Niger, and they have also been unable to break their FIFA World Cup™ hoodoo that dates back to their last appearance in 1990 in Italy.
So have Cuper and Egypt found each other at the right time? Cuper will only say that his ambition and enthusiasm match that of the Pharaohs. “The only question I had when I came here was: what do Egyptians exactly want me to achieve? They had a big target which was to reach the World Cup and to win the Nations Cup after some disappointments. [These goals] will not be easy and will need time and hard work, and we will be under pressure to deliver, but I believe we can do these things. Otherwise I would not have accepted the offer in the first place.”
The coach says it is time to move past the golden generation that won a hat-trick of continental titles in succession between 2006 and 2010. It seems like a good bet given the emergence of some locally-based talent, such as Zamalek’s Mostafa Fathi and Al Ahly’s Ramadan Sobhi, to add to the mix with more tested players like AS Roma forward Mohamed Salah and Arsenal’s newly-signed midfielder Mohamed El Neny.
“We have the right balance between young and experienced players, some of whom play in top European leagues,” said Cuper, who has taken quickly to working and living in Egypt. He believes football around the globe has universal characteristics and, for that reason, even cultural differences would never be an obstacle for an ambitious and professional manager.
“I haven’t faced any problems since I came here. I adapted very well to everything and the people have warmly welcomed me. Here, there is the kind of football passion that any manager would like to see. You can smell this in the air,” he said. “Some rich countries naturally have great living conditions but lack this aspect, which is very important to motivate any coach. Being under constant pressure is a blessing because it shows how people care about football and what you are doing.”
Egypt’s start under Cuper has been promising, at least in terms of results. They won three and lost once in four competitive games, and also won four of five friendly matches. Egypt top their 2017 AFCON qualifying group after winning both opening matches and are through to the group phase of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying after a 4-1 aggregate victory over Chad, who gave them a brief scare by claiming a shock 1-0 first-leg win.
“There is no such thing as easy opponents as journalists call them. We must respect any team regardless of the ranking and history, because Egypt itself has suffered in the past qualifiers because it dropped points in what you call easy games,” Cuper said.
Egypt next face Nigeria, who lie second in Group G of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers with four points, in a crucial double-header in March. They are waiting to find out their next opponents in Russia 2018 qualifying. “I would be lying if I said that I don’t wish to avoid certain teams in the World Cup draw, but my job is to get Egypt prepared for any opponent. My job is to make the likes of Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, be worried that they will face us.
“I repeatedly tell my players that we can make people happy. Many people are suffering from the problems of everyday life. Some are poor, some are unemployed. For those people, football might be their ultimate source of joy.”