Highly-respected Ghanaian journalist Henry Asante Twum speaks extensively to Egypt's ambassador to Ghana Mohammed Heider ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifier between the two African giants in Alexandria on November 13.
Ghana and Egypt will renew their long standing rivalry this month in a 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier at the Borg El-Arab Stadium in Alexandria. The two teams are fighting for the single ticket in a Group that also comprise Uganda and Congo.
The Black Stars drew blank against the Cranes of Uganda in their first Group E game at Tamale and are under immense pressure to get their qualifying campaign back on track following Egypt’s 2-1 win over Congo in Brazzaville.
Ghana is pushing for a record fourth straight appearance at the World Cup having made it to the last three editions in Germany (2006), South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014).
In this Exclusive Interview His Excellency Mohammed Heider, Egyptian ambassador to Ghana tells me how football has developed in the Mediterranean country in the last three years since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.
The Pharoah’s have an unprecedented 7 Africa Cup of Nations titles despite not making it to the last three tournaments.
Egypt boasts of a very good squad and are led by Argentine tactician Hector Cuper who has been in charge of the team since March 2015.
Ghana defeated Egypt 7-3 on aggregate in 2013 in a two leg final Qualifier for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Below is full interview with the Egyptian Ambassador
HAT: How long have you been in Ghana as Ambassador?
H.E Mohammed Heider: It’s about two years now. I have been here since October 2014
HAT: Two years in Ghana and still counting. What will you say has been the highlight of your stay in Ghana as Ambassador?
Ambassador Mohammed Heider: Well I feel at home. We have an excellent historic relation between our two countries. We are in-laws. We share many political and cultural similarities. It feels good to be here and it’s good for our people and the two countries.
HAT: Ghana is preparing to travel to Egypt for the match against the Pharaohs. How busy has your office been so far in terms of Visa Application?
H.E Mohammed Heider: It’s getting busy now. Because of the applications and interest that the Ghanaian people give to this match. But at the end of the day I see it as a single football match that will be followed by other matches between two friendly nations. In Egypt, we have a great deal of respect for the Black Stars. It’s one of the big teams in Africa. But so do we (Egypt). We have always been. We have won the Afcon more than any other country and we have our school of football which everybody admires.
We would be happy to beat Ghana and qualify. But if it goes the other way round, we shall still support the Black Stars. Egypt has always supported Ghana in other competitions.
You should have been in Egypt in 2009 to see how Egyptians supported the Black Satellites during the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup which Ghana won.
I want to stress that be it Egypt or Ghana at the World Cup, It will be a fair representation for the continent.
HAT: Do you think that this is the right time for “The Pharaohs” to qualify for the World Cup?.
H.E Mohammed Heider: It is unfortunate that Ghana and Egypt will have to meet in the same Group. Two quality teams in the continent to clash in a World Cup qualifying Group is hurting. This is not the best. But that is how it is. One team will have to fight to make it to the World Cup. I hope it will be Egypt, But I will be equally happy if it will be Ghana. It depends on who deserves to be there because whoever that qualifies will be a good representative for Africa.
HAT: Is Egypt politically stable now?.
H.E Mohammed Heider: Politically Egypt is stable. Egypt is safe. Egypt has an elected President. We have no problem with security or stability whatsoever. To my knowledge and understanding the place is One Hundred percent safe. Not only for Ghanaians but for everyone who is in Egypt. Everything is perfect and we are in good standing at the moment.
HAT: Your National team is now on a high. What do you think you have done right in the last few years?.
H.E Mohammed Heider: No team can continue in the same level forever. I admit that we have struggled since we won the three Cup of Nations titles. We had to regroup and change things. It always take time when you are doing a new team. These changes have resulted in having players in top clubs in Europe and other parts of the World. It’s a fact that Egypt football is on a rise. Our team is much better now and that’s why we have hope that we have a good chance to make it Russia 2018.
We only need to be cautious. Because in Football one bad result can affect you and take you out. That is why we will never underestimate the Black Stars. We will treat them with respect. They will be very well received in Egypt as well as the supporters. They have always had a good time whenever they visit Egypt and this will not be an exception.
HAT: Is Alexandria ready for the match on November 13?
H.E Mohammed Heider: Of course the venue is ready and everybody in Egypt is ready. It will be organized in a perfect manner. This is not just a match. But it’s going to be a festival. It’s good to win. If we fail to win then we have to work on the other matches. It’s not the decisive game. Others will follow. So I entreat all supporters to stay calm and leave the two teams to do their job. But for me as Ambassador, I think my best wish is that my team beat Ghana.
HAT: Do you think that the political instability in the last three years had a negative impact on football in Egypt?.
H.E Mohammed Heider: Certainly football was affected. The League was stopped for almost two years. To be able to control the people, teams had to play in Empty stadiums. We struggled, no doubt. But we are now back.
Last year Al Ahly played in the Champions League final and this time we saw Zamalek doing same. But unfortunately lost to Sundowns of South Africa. We struggled in the last three years. I don’t see this as bad as others may have thought because I think we have coped very well with the situation and we look okay now.
HAT: How did you feel when Zamalek lost to Sundown’s in the Champions League final?
H.E Mohammed Heider: I think Zamalek played well. But I think Sundowns deserve to win the trophy. They played very well in the first leg in Pretoria. Zamalek did well to turn things around in the reverse fixture which they couldn’t do. But I think they will bounce back next season
HAT: You have stayed competitive and attractive in Africa for a very long time. How does Egypt do it?
H.E Mohammed Heider: We are very close to Europe because we don’t take best practices for a ride. We pay attention to detail. Club football is very attractive in Egypt. We give players an opportunity to earn good money and also give them the platform to develop their careers. It’s always great to see other nationals in the Egyptian League. It tells us that we are doing something right.
Football in Egypt has stayed at the top level at a very long time because we always want to be the best. As an industry. We develop at all levels. Administratively, technically, medically and structurally we also make progress. This takes us very close to Europe in terms of structures and professionalism. The fact is that we see football as business and that is what we do all the time.
HAT: Ghana has been drawn with Egypt again for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Will you say that is a coincidence?
H.E Mohammed Heider: I don’t have any problem with it at all. It’s unfortunate that Ghana must play Egypt again. It’s just a coincidence. It’s better to beat Ghana twice than beating somebody else. Our target is to beat Ghana in November and beat them again in Gabon at the Cup of Nations. We are determined to do that. And I think we have what it takes to conquer Ghana in the two games.
HAT: You haven’t won the AFCON title since Hassan Shehatta. What do you think is the reason why expatriate Coaches have struggled in the last four years?
H.E Mohammed Heider:Well, it’s obvious that we got our best results from indigenous Coaches. Shehatta won the afcon in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and that was because he had a core of his players based in Egypt and camping them was always easy. However one thing that I can say is that Bob Bradley did an exceptional job when he took charge of the team.
It is so bad that he lost to Ghana in Kumasi and had to leave after the game in Cairo. But if you should ask me, Bob was superb in his role as Coach. Now we have Hector Cuper and I see some great guys around him who want to achieve things together. Today we have so many players playing in Europe.
Sometimes that situation has both positive and negative effects. We chose to build a new team and we decided to bring in Hector. I feel that very soon the results will show. But as a matter of fact, our best results came from local Coaches. We may go back to Egyptian Coaches some time to come
HAT: How significant is football to the Economy of Egypt?
H.E Mohammed Heider: Football has the ability to market the nation. And that is what we are excited about as Egyptians. If you remember when Egypt was dominating the Africa Cup of Nations, it was a very powerful tool to advertise Egypt around the globe. The footballers gained a huge recognition and that affected the economy positively.
It helps you reach out to the rest of the world without any rigorous effort through branding and that is great. Football also contribute so much to the economy and can be compared to the effects that cinema, industry and culture have on the growth of the economy.
HAT: Are Egyptians targeting another Cup of Nations title in 2017?
H.E Mohammed Heider: I cannot sit in Ghana and set a target for the team. But any big team like Ghana, Egypt, and Ivory Coast will be hoping to win it. Realistically it’s possible. But as a people we are looking very cautious following our long term absence from the competition. We want to take things calm and easy with a step by step approach and see what happens. We will go and give off our best and see what comes out at the end of the competition. But as for Ghana we shall fight to beat them.
HAT: Finally what message do you have for the Ghanaian football public?
H.E Mohammed Heider: Well, I wish all of the people who will be travelling to Egypt the best of luck. As Egyptians we will be hoping to win the match on the 13th. We also want to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
But if that doesn’t happen, we shall throw our weight behind the Black Stars. I wish the two teams the best of luck. I am sure that this is the time to beat Ghana and we shall fight to beat them.
The fans who will go to Egypt must comport themselves during their stay in the country. Let’s continue to love each other. I am routing for Egypt. We shall do it this time.