Egypt’s Héctor Cúper: ‘I found a country in need. Sometimes you need that too’
There are times in life when, without really planning it, everything comes together: there’s a moment, when it fits,” Héctor Cúper says. No one was fully aware of it at the time, but the spring of 2015, when he became the coach of Egypt, was one of those moments. They needed him and he needed them; he believes they met at the right time and had even more in common than they first realised: passionate about football, proud, but fallen and a little wounded, they had a past better than their present. They shared a desire – he calls it a “need” – for revival.
Uefa’s coach of the year in 2000, Champions League finalist two seasons running with Valencia, Cúper had just been sacked after four months at Al‑Wasl in Dubai, having previously been at Orduspor, Racing Santander, where he resigned with the team bottom of La Liga, and Aris Thessaloniki. Before that he had been the coach of Georgia for a year in which they did not win a game. Egypt, Africa champions in 2006, 2008 and 2010, had not even made it to the next three tournaments. Now, together, they have reached tonight’s final against Cameroon in Libreville.
No one expected this. “They asked me to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations and play it; they didn’t ask me to win it,” Cúper says. The real, stated objective was to qualify for the World Cup, 28 years after they last reached it. Cúper talks about an “anxiety to return Egypt to the world” which goes beyond just sport but Russia 2018 plays its part and Egypt are top of their qualifying group with two wins from two.
They have been beaten only three times in 20 games since he took over, a run that has carried them to the final. No one expected that, either, yet there was a need for this success and there is pride in it too, for coach and country.
Cúper has been coaching for 24 years, yet admits he needed something to fully re-engage him. He left Argentina in 1997, arriving in Mallorca, who he led to a Copa del Rey final for only the second time in their history, a Cup‑Winners’ Cup final for the first time, the Spanish Super Cup and their highest league position. It was a miracle and another followed at Valencia, who reached two Champions League finals in a row. Internazionale came next. Cúper was among the most sought-after coaches on the planet. He never returned to Argentina, and is now working in his seventh country.
Britain and Ireland are not among them, although there is interest and there have been interviews, moments when they were close – and even though Cúper is a Spanish rendering of Cooper, his ancestry Irish. “I love English football: I used to watch Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team closely,” he says. “I copied things off that team, in fact: the two up front, some of the movements.” So would he like to coach there? “Of course. But it doesn’t happen like that: what happens is a consequence of your work; it’s not a case of saying to yourself ‘I’m working towards that’.”
There has always been something of the adventurer about Cúper, and he talks fondly of the way that football allows you to see the world: “it’s difficult [to keep changing country] but it’s an extraordinary experience and it’s not just about sport. You see the life and idiosyncrasies of so many places.” And yet after those early, unexpected and unprecedented successes there was a risk of him drifting, the life experience becoming greater than the footballing ones.
Those seven countries start with Spain and Italy; then it’s Georgia, Greece, Turkey, and Dubai. Somehow, he slipped away from the frontline. He went to Egypt knowing little of the country and yet he has found what he was looking for.
“Fundamentally, what I like is to train. Football is a passion: if you don’t have that, there’s something missing. Football gives me life, oxygen; it always moves me, motivates me,” he says. “But I needed to compete for something – not ‘worthwhile’, exactly – but something that really mattered. I needed a shock, a jolt: a big objective, a World Cup, a real competition. I found that here: this feels like it did when I went to Mallorca [in 1997]: it fits. It feels good.”
This is worthwhile, something that matters. Cúper arrived at a difficult time for Egyptian football – for Egypt – following the Arab spring of 2011. The Port Said stadium riot the following year, in which 74 people died, saw the national league shut down for two years. Games have been played behind closed doors, without fans, for four years. Living 30km outside Cairo, Cúper has been safe but he has not been immune. Nor has he been blind to the difficulties and the impact football can have, the joy it has created, its social significance.
“I’ve been shown images, told stories. You see it everywhere not just in Cairo: giant screens, huge crowds, great happiness,” he says. “They needed a way of expressing themselves – and we have become that. They needed a team to support.”
“When I arrived, I found a country, a federation, with a real need – and sometimes you need that, too. You know you will get the sacrifice you need. I found passion, a love for football. I found good players, young players. OK, so Essam El-Hadary [the goalkeeper and captain] is 44, but this is a young team. 23, 24. I have found players with a real desire to work and a love for their country. They have shown humility and solidarity; they have focused on a common, shared objective. That’s not so normal these days: players often ask: ‘What’s in it for me?’ They don’t adapt, won’t change. I have stars in this team, but they’re humble. They listen, they have an open mind, willingness. I say: ‘Let’s see if we can do this.’ ‘OK, ready.’ I have to be the first believer in what we do, and bit by bit they have believed. But everyone is surprised.
“Maybe people want three, four goals a game, maybe it hasn’t been wonderful football, but you have to do what you see, what you think works. We haven’t raced ahead of ourselves: if you do that you fly off the track at the first bend, but we have gone step by step.”
Step by step, all the way to the final. It started with a 0-0 draw against Mali. Then 1-0 wins over Uganda and Ghana took Egypt out of the group and another 1-0 victory over Morocco put them into the semi-final against Burkina Faso. A 1-1 draw saw Egypt go through 4-3 on penalties, Hadary saving the last two spot‑kicks.
“You could see in the last 15 minutes that we didn’t have much left to give,” Cúper says. “We’d had a day less to rest, there were injuries, the team made an incredible effort. We were tired, physically and emotionally. We take the first penalty and their goalkeeper saves it. On the inside you’re thinking: ‘You can see they’re fresher than us.’ You have to try to remain calm, keep control, or else you’ll spiral or despair. They take three penalties, three good penalties. ‘It’s hard. But one of the wonderful things about football is that you can’t control it and then Hadary appears.”
And so to the final. Cúper has done it again: another unexpected side still standing at the end, his team going further than anyone imagined; another overachievement, as it was with Mallorca, Valencia and Aris, where investment and resources were dwarfed by competitors. Cause for joy, a success already, pride restored. But cause for concern too? After all, final: it’s a word that Cúper could be forgiven for being frightened of. This is the man who if there was a competition for finishing second would finish second, the joke goes.
It is a little cruel perhaps, and with the teams he had no one could seriously demand victory, but that curious run remains: as a coach, he has lost five finals in a row, four of them in successive years. The Copa del Rey in 1998, the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, the Champions League in 2000 and 2001 and the Greek Cup final in 2011.
“It’s a lot”, Cúper says, with the hint of a chuckle. That must play on the mind? “No,” he replies. He is surprisingly good humoured about it, to the point of adding to the list. Five? “I count Huracán and Inter Milan, when we knew that if we won on the final day we would win the league, but didn’t,” he says. Seven, then.
Defeat against Cameroon would not be seen as a failure, far from it, but it is time to break the curse, to prevent seven becoming eight. Time to forget it, at least.
“I don’t believe in witchcraft or curses or strange things like that,” Cúper says. “And there are finals and finals. We lost two of them on penalties [the Copa del Rey in 1998 and the Champions League in 2001], we had nine players in the Copa del Rey, and we lost to great teams: Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona. So jinx, bad luck? If you’ve only got bad luck, you don’t get there at all. I don’t think like that. People say you’re better not going at all if that’s going to happen. No, it’s better to be there. Always.”
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