Four Lessons from Egypt’s World Cup Experience

By Mohamed A. El-Erian

Egypt’s national soccer team rode to Russia for their first World Cup finals in 28 years on a wave of lofty expectations and potent fan enthusiasm. They are now returning home having lost all of their games – no small disappointment for a country that takes both soccer and national pride very seriously. Now, a blame game has erupted from which no one seems to be spared.

This may be understandable, but it is not constructive. Indeed, it risks obscuring important lessons that can help not just Egypt, but also other emerging economies, to fulfill their considerable potential – and not just in soccer.

The first lesson is to manage expectations. The run-up to the World Cup was dominated by well-deserved praise for the team’s star player, Mohamed Salah, who was English football’s 2017/2018 double player of the year and has become an idol for millions of Egyptians. Add to that the fact that Egypt had not qualified for a World Cup final since 1990, and expectations ended up far exceeding what the team could realistically achieve in the tournament.

This was all the more true given that Salah recently suffered a dislocated shoulder, which forced him out of Liverpool’s Champions League final against Real Madrid and sidelined him in Egypt’s first pivotal game in Russia, against Uruguay. Yet Egyptians remained hopeful – indeed, too hopeful – and ended up far more disappointed than, realistically, they should have been. Such disappointment can cause expectations to overcorrect in the opposite direction.

The second lesson is to take advantage of strengths to support diversification. Egyptians’ enduring hope for their soccer team after Salah’s injury was not rooted in the knowledge that there was some other secret weapon waiting to dazzle the crowd. On the contrary, Egypt’s game plan continued to rely substantially on Salah, whose talent was well known, but who was unable to play at full potential.

The team’s tactics were also slow to evolve, even after opponents double- and triple-teamed Salah. Rather than diversify from a position of strength, managers became stuck in “active inertia” – trying to do more, but still locked into their established approach, even as it came up against fundamental challenges.

The third lesson is to finish the job. In Egypt’s final World Cup game – a crushing 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia that put the team at the bottom of its group – both of the opponent’s goals were conceded in the stoppage time of each half. As the game clock ticked down, the team’s concentration seemed to wane. Germany made a similar mistake, giving up two goals to South Korea in stoppage time.

That does not work in soccer, nor does it work in business, policymaking, or just about any other field. The key to sustained success is never to let up until the final whistle is blown.

The last lesson of Egypt’s World Cup experience is that international engagement can play a vital role in enhancing domestic capital and resources. Players who, like Salah, have opportunities to play abroad in highly competitive leagues can deepen and expand their skill sets, while developing a broader strategic understanding of the game. This puts them in a better position to improve the performance of the national team in regional and global competitions.

The increased movement of players across borders has already contributed to a convergence among countries’ skill levels, reflected in the declining dominance of traditional powerhouses like Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Indeed, Italy did not qualify for this World Cup, Germany lost in the group stage, and Argentina got a real scare.

Greater efforts are needed to seize international opportunities for human-capital development, to repatriate the resulting knowledge and expertise, and to spread what is learned to more people at home. That is as true for soccer as it is for many other pursuits, from business processes to technology.

Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup showed that the country is capable of competing at the highest international level. Rather than treating its loss as a failure, Egyptians should view it as a learning experience, one that can help guide the country as it seeks to achieve more fully its considerable potential on multiple fronts. In fact, the lessons learned from this disappointment can be applied well beyond soccer – and well beyond Egypt.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz, was Chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council and is the author of The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.