Salah the toast of his nation as Egypt end 28-year Finals exile

Above: Egypt winger Mohamed Salah (No. 10) celebrating the nation's entry into next year's World Cup Finals with his team-mates and fans at the Borg el-Arab Stadium on Sunday. The Pharaohs last took part in football's showpiece in Italy in 1990.
Above: Egypt winger Mohamed Salah (No. 10) celebrating the nation's entry into next year's World Cup Finals with his team-mates and fans at the Borg el-Arab Stadium on Sunday. The Pharaohs last took part in football's showpiece in Italy in 1990.PHOTO: REUTERS
Above: Egypt fans spilling out onto the streets of Cairo after the full-time whistle was blown, following Salah's 95th-minute penalty winner against Congo.
Above: Egypt fans spilling out onto the streets of Cairo after the full-time whistle was blown, following Salah's 95th-minute penalty winner against Congo.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CAIRO • Egypt's capital crackled with fireworks and blared with horns on Sunday as the football-crazy country reached the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

Rare scenes of joy took hold of blocks around the city as the national team celebrated a 2-1 victory over Congo.

"It's been 28 years and we're finally going to enter the World Cup. Today is a day of celebration for the entire country," said 41-year-old Gaber Fathy in the capital.

Winger Mohamed Salah scored twice, securing victory with a last-gasp penalty to put Egypt four points clear with one match left in their African Group E qualifying campaign.

The Liverpool player gave his side a 63rd-minute lead, even though Egypt still looked tentative in a tense match against opponents who had yet to win a match and were bottom of the group.

A defensive blunder had let in Salah, to the relief of the home crowd, but Egypt's dreams threatened to turn into a nightmare when Arnold Bouka Moutou equalised, firing past 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary with three minutes left.

The home side, though, won a 95th-minute penalty which Salah converted to secure the trip to Russia, where the Arab world's most populous country will compete on football's ultimate stage for the first time since Italy in 1990.

The desperation to qualify was so great ahead of the match that Argentina-born Egypt coach Hector Cuper admitted he was taking medication for high blood pressure.

"I am taking hypertension medicine due to the stress I suffer from continuing criticism," he told reporters without specifying who his critics were. "Life is full of stress, but the challenge of reaching the World Cup is the toughest stress I have faced."

The raucous mood spilling out onto the streets marked a respite for Egyptians after years of hardship, from International Monetary Fund-backed austerity reforms that have pushed inflation to record highs to a law on protests that has made public gatherings exceedingly rare after two presidents were toppled since a 2011 uprising.

"You can look around and see how people are happy. This is something you never witness in Egypt," said 23-year-old Gamal Mohamed in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square, the centre of the country's once-active protest movement, which has since been quashed by tough security measures.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi congratulated the Egyptian people after the match as tireless fans draped in flags turned the streets into an impromptu parade of red, white and black.

Just across the border in neighbouring Gaza, where Egypt has led a political reconciliation process, thousands of Palestinians poured into an open-air park to cheer on the second Arab country to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after Saudi Arabia.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2017, with the headline 'Salah the toast of his nation as Egypt end 28-year Finals exile'. Print Edition | Subscribe