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Egypt: The other World Cup host

Rio may be getting all the buzz in the world of soccer this week, but don’t forget about Egypt. The group round of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, hosted by Egypt, is drawing to a close. And much to the delight of Egyptians, their national team is advancing thanks to a stunning win over Italy on Thursday night.

The event’s success so far is, no doubt, a feather in the cap of the Middle East’s most populous nation, which seems eager to prove it can host a major international sporting event.

President Hosni Mubarak, flanked by other top government officials, presided over the opening ceremonies and victory by Egypt over Trinidad and Tobego in Alexandria.

Advertising for the tournament, it seems, is everywhere. Egypt’s coach, Miroslav Soukup (featured in Jon Jensen’s recent piece on air quality in Egypt), has been featured in several Egyptian TV commercials; Coca Cola billboards with the team’s top players are ubiquitous; and Cairo’s streets empty each time Egypt plays, as Egyptians huddle around TV sets to watch their beloved Pharaohs.

Even the iconic sphinx has gotten a makeover, with tournament organizers replacing its long lost nose on the tournament’s logo.

The Egyptians have played each match to sold out stadiums of fans, their faces painted with the Egyptian red, white and black.

The scene at a cafe during game time, though, is far from the image of drunk, brawling fans we’re used to seeing from European soccer fans.

Last week I took in Egypt’s game against Paraguay from a small cafe in the Giza neighborhood of Mohandiseen.

As I took my seat near the massive projection screen the cafe, one skeptical fan nearby asked me if I was rooting for Paraguay. No, I said, the only team I’d root for over Egypt is the U.S. He looked delighted.

As during a soccer game anywhere in the world, my cafe was jammed with a hundred backseat coaches.

Egypt’s star player, Mohamed Talaat, was having an off night and the fans missed no opportunity to throw up their hands and question why Talaat couldn’t convert any of the shots his midfielders set up for him.

Speaking of backseat coaching, Soukup’s translator has proved one of the most colorful figures in Egypt’s bid to bring home the cup. Soukup, a Czech, who began working with the under-20 national team earlier this year, doesn’t speak any Arabic, so the team provided him with a translator who seems glued to his boss’ side.

When Soukup gets out of his seat at the end of Egypt’s bench, the translator follows. When the coach stands on the sideline, yelling and gesticulating at his team on the field, the translator yells too, closely mimicking Soukup’s gestures. It makes for great television.

Whenever Egypt missed an opportunity to score, my cafe rang out with the usual screams of “Allah!” (“God!”) or “Haram Aleik!” (“Shame on you!”).

Egypt lost the Paraguay game in heartbreaking fashion. The Pharaohs tied the game at 1-1 just before the half. The second 45 minutes lacked any real momentum for either side until Paraguay knocked in the game winner well into injury time.

The situation looked dire for Egypt, which had to win its final game of the group round against Italy—largely considered to be the strongest team in the group—to advance.

Walking back from assignment Thursday night through Garbage City, a neighborhood populated by Egypt’s garbage collectors, recyclers, and mountains of trash, I saw the cafes along the narrow dirt road again packed with spectators.

Egypt went on to win 4-2, vaulting the hosts into the round of 16.

While the Egyptians have rallied around their country’s host status — stadiums for matches between premier teams have boasted decent attendance — the energy here is clearly directed at the Pharaohs, who have yet to disappoint their adoring fans with a dull match.

Win or lose, though, Egypt has embraced this tournament and taken it as an opportunity to demonstrate the kind patriotism that Egypt has been so famous for historically.