As they do almost daily, they went through their usual practice drills but one aspect of their training regimen was bypassed; actually forbidden. No penalty kicks were taken. Even the thought or the mere mention of spot kicks was prohibited.
When they clash tonight in Cairo in their second-leg semi-final game in the African Champions League in Cairo, Ahly of Egypt have the home edge over Nigeria s Enyimba after their 0-0 result in Aba. But Ahly had better have learnt well the lesson of last year when after the first-leg of the final in Sousse, Ahly returned to Cairo from a goalless draw with the Tunisian side L etoile almost certain the cup was theirs for a record sixth time. For their supreme over confidence the Egyptians were handed a stunning 3-1 defeat that has rankled since.
Ahly did well not to lose in Aba where no one has won or tied in this year s group phase. But the painful experience of last year has forced Ahly to tone down the rhetoric of expected triumph. That Enyimba is a two-time champion of the Champions League is another reason to temper the talk of an easy victory. Also look at what could happen and you ll understand why Ahly are not celebrating just yet. Any draw above zero would propel Enyimba to the final because of the away goals rule, as would an Enyimba win outright. A 0-0 draw would lead to penalties which is what Ahly coach Manuel Jose would like to avoid like the plague. He wants his team to win the game during the 90 minutes and not have to depend on the throw-of-the-dice penalties.
Jose has helped Ahly win three of their five African trophies but his decision to do away with penalty practice may backfire on the Portuguese manager big time. Should it come to pass that the game does in fact go to penalties, and Ahly lose because they did not practice shooting from the spot, Jose will not look the brilliant tactician/psychologist as the compatriot he once said he was better than, Jose Mourinho.
From what the unexpected holds to even more guesswork, this coming Wednesday, our pairs of Egyptian eyes, and that of all other nationalities, will zoom in on Zurich, Switzerland, the headquarters of FIFA, where the draw for the second and final African World Cup qualifications will be conducted. The 20 Africans that made it to this round will be divided into five groups of four teams each, with the winner of each group winning the trip to South Africa 2010.
We already know that because of our good standing in the world seedings, Egypt has been placed in a group far from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana, so we will not come face to face with any of these West African powerhouses. The bad news is that we could have to make way in our group for one Arab Meghreb nation, and nobody on this side of the Pyramids wants that. When Arab nations get together on the field, throw all those brotherly love, unity and fraternity slogans with the garbage. As Sarah Palin might say, it s war, baby, war.
The last time we beat Morocco was in 1986. Our last win against Tunisia was 2002 and Algeria 2001.
Egypt s coach Hassan Shehata and star striker Mido have publicly said they would rather tango with the devil than meet any one of these nations, given our historical ineptitude with them, coupled with the curse they supposedly have over us (a curse is when no matter how good you are and how bad your opponent is, you still can t beat them).
This Maghreb trio is not nearly as strong as what it was in the 1970s, 80s or 90s, yet we d rather play a black African juggernaut any day. That s what a jinx can do.
Our advice is to play the way we did in Ghana 2008. If we can recapture the same spirit, camaraderie and chemistry that made us the best in Africa, we should be able to beat anybody in Africa.
Any nation which wants to go to the World Cup, the top football tournament in the world, is expected to meet and beat the best on its continent. There is no escape and no place to hide.