Cairo: Football, football and always football. Isn’t there anything else to talk about around here?
So as to not be accused of too much soccer bias, let’s talk team handball. We are, after all, playing in the World Championship in Germany starting Jan. 19. We’ll be making our seventh straight appearance in a World Championship, which is the equivalent of the football World Cup.
To compare with our more illustrious sport, Egypt has been to only two World Cups, the last being in 1990 and the first 56 years before that.
Still, we’re not expected to do much in Bremen. In Group D, we’re grouped with Qatar which is easy pickings, but that will be the end of the joy ride. We then meet defending champion Spain, then the Czech Republic which also has a gold medal to its credit.
It’s not just the stiff opposition that is worrisome; our own shortcomings are just as worrying.
Egyptian handball is not what it used to be, which was pretty good. In 1993 we won the world junior championship. That same year heralded our debut on the adult stage. We finished 12 out of 16 teams but we were just warming up.
In the next two championships, the Pharaohs finished a respectable sixth place out of 24 teams. It was the highest finish any Egyptian team had reached in any sport. The seeds of a championship team had been sown and the tree would blossom.
Because we had become so good, we were allowed to host the World Championship in 1999, the first Arab and African country to be bestowed such an honor. An overall record 507,800 spectators would cheer us on but to no avail.
After scrapping past the group stage, we tripped badly against Russia which raced to a 7-0 lead as goalkeeper Andrey Lavrov demonstrated why he owned three Olympic gold medals and two World Championships. Egypt lost and eventually ended up in seventh place.
But in France 2001, we stormed back brilliantly, reaching the semi-final after famously defeating Lavrov and Russia 21-19 in the quarter-finals. Unfortunately, the hosts were irrepressible in the semis, beating us 24-21. By then, the gas tank had emptied. We finished fourth, losing out on a bronze medal to Yugoslavia 27-17.
But landing a semi-final berth had made handball the most successful Egyptian sport and No 2 in the popularity contest. It didn’t hurt that the head of the International Handball Federation was Egyptian. Hassan Mustafa helped his country’s cause by scrapping the system whereby the first seven teams in a World Championship – invariably all Europeans – headed automatically for the Olympics. Added qualifications started to make it easier for non-Europeans like us to make an Olympic appearance.
But Mustafa’s presence could not resist the theory that what goes up often drops with a thud. Egypt slipped out of the world s top 10 when it finished 15th in Portugal in 2003. In the last World Championship, in 2005 in Tunisia, we could climb no higher than 14th.
Olympic appearances tell a similar story of Egypt up, then a perilous fall: sixth in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and seventh in Sydney in 2000, but dead last in Athens 2004, with not a single win in six tries.
The graph needle will not suddenly jump in Germany. Gone are Gohar Nabil, Ahmed Bilal, Ahmed El-Attar, Sameh Abdel-Warith, Ashraf Awad and Sherif Mo’men, replaced by 10 faces not seen in Tunisia 2005. Veterans Hamada El-Naqeeb, Saber Hussein, Marwan Ragab and Hussein Zaki anchor today’s team while head coach Zikovic Zoran, who boasts a world title for Yugoslavia in 1986, is the rudder.
But the boat is rickety. We’ll probably float a bit before sinking.