The African World Cup journey took its first major step in 1934 as Egypt took the honour of becoming the first team from this vast continent to play a competitive World Cup finals match. Their spirited performance showed a talent team. This should have been the platform that allowed African football to flourish on the biggest stage. Instead, years of misfortunate and malpractice unfolded, meaning that an African team would not play on this stage until the 9th edition in 1970, in Mexico.
The qualifying process was not the colossus event that it is today. In the early editions of the World Cup, for an African team to qualify, they had to be the best team in Africa and then compete against the best team in Asia to make it to the finals. The number of participating nations was hardly plentiful, perhaps going some way to explain why the qualification process was so convoluted.
Egypt were the only African nation interested in qualifying, with larges swathes of Africa still entrenched in their strife over the colonial reign. Egypt became Africa’s champion almost by default here and were primed to play the best ranked Asian team to do battle to play in the 1934 FIFA World Cup.
The Asian competition was not much stronger. Turkey, then participating as an Asian nation, withdrew from proceedings prior to a ball being kicked. This left Palestine standing in the way of Egypt. Palestine were playing as a British mandate team, with the bulk of their squad being made up by a majority of British ex-pat players, hardly the crème de la crème of footballing talent.
This intercontinental playoff was a two-legged affair. If there was any doubt about who would win this tie before it was played, the doubt was put to bed upon the full-time whistle of the first leg in Cairo. The Egyptians ran up the score, winning 7-1. Mahmoud Mokhtar El Tetsh grabbed a hat trick, Mostafa Taha and Mohamed Latif both scored a double. Avraham Nudelman managed to pull a goal back, but this made the score only 5-1. The damage was done, and the Egyptians finished the game off.
Any hope of a miraculous second-leg comeback was foiled as Egypt scored just two minutes into the game. They were 4-0 up in Israel by halftime and won the game 4-1. Their aggregate score was 11-2 and their passage to the 1934 World Cup was sealed. They may not have appreciated it at the time, but Scottish manager James McCrae and his Egyptian team had just created a little shard of history. They were the first-ever African team to qualify for a World Cup, and they had a real opportunity to showcase African football to the world.
One month after this victory in Tel Aviv, the team set sail for Italy. The World Cup was a different entity then to what it resembles today. Nowadays the format sees 32 teams from up to six continents playing a seeded group format, with the top two from each group qualifying for the Round of 16. Knockout football takes place, with draws going to extra time and penalties. This knockout continues all the way through the tournament until two teams remain for the World Cup final.
In 1934, 16 teams participated in a straight knockout format. This particular tournament was primarily European based in the makeup of teams who travelled to Italy. Egypt were joined by the United States of America, Argentina and Brazil as the non-European contingent.
All four non-European teams were eliminated in the first round. As disappointed as the Egyptians were to be leaving early, they could take some solace in knowing that their journey home involved only a short sail across the Mediterranean Sea. Spare a thought for those poor souls who had travelled by boat for weeks from the Americas, all the way to Italy, for one single match!
The 27th of May, 1934, is a very special date in the history of African football, it is the date that an African nation first kicked a competitive ball at the FIFA World Cup. The Egyptian team were drawn to play Hungary in the city of Naples. Nowadays, Egypt versus Hungary would not be the biggest event on the fixture list. Hungary have not qualified for a World Cup since 1986 and have only one European Championship appearance since the 1970s. Egypt have arguably been relying far too heavily on the attacking prowess of Mohammad Salah, with the side declining somewhat since their African dominance of the 2000s.
This game is not being played today, however, it was played in 1934, and at the time, this was something of a grudge match. While this was the first time that both Hungary and Egypt had qualified for the World Cup, competitive football was not newly invented for the World Cup in 1930. This had been played out at the summer Olympics for decades prior to the World Cup and Hungary had done their utmost to thrive in this sport.
The reason for this being a grudge match is on account of the 1924 Olympics in Paris. After beating Poland in the first round, the Hungarians met Egypt in the second round. Despite Egypt’s first-round bye, Hungary still went into this match as favourites. They were not playing competitive games as regularly as they would have wished, on account of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire), being banned from such tournaments following the first World War, but they had an extremely talented squad, including the highly talented Béla Guttman.
The Egyptians obviously did not read the script, putting three unanswered goals past the Hungarian side to secure passage into the next round, knocking their opponents out of the Olympics. This humiliating defeat caused the head coach of Hungary, as well as the head of the Hungarian football association, to resign. They were not necessarily expected to win the Olympics in 1924, but to be dismantled so easily by this African outfit brought much shame to them and the changes were rung.
Fast-forward ten years and the stage was set for the rematch. Admittedly, very few players and coaches remained from this clash a decade on, but to fans of Hungary, the fire they had to win was strong. In an era where the World Cup was a straight knockout, there was no need or desire to play it cautiously; goals won games and the onus to start fast was of utmost importance, and one of the two sides grasped this concept fast than the other.
With little over ten minutes played, Hungary had the lead over McCrae’s men. By the 31st minute, this score was doubled, and it was looking like Hungary could push on to thrash the Egyptians. The game was certainly not over, however, and shortly after this second Hungarian goal, the fightback began.
Abdulrahman Fawzi scored to make the game 2-1 in the 35th minute. At the time, he was just a player scoring a goal. It was a hot summers day in Italy and his team, the underdogs, were a goal behind. It is hard to imagine Fawzi getting too over-emotional at the fact that he had just scored the first-ever African goal at the World Cup finals, though as the years rolled by and the significance of this tournament grew in stature, the Egyptian winger would have taken immense pride in this historic feat.
Fawzi not only scored the first African goal at the FIFA World Cup, but he notched the second, too. This second goal tied the game at two goals apiece and was scored just four minutes after his first. This was a remarkable feat personally and gave Egypt a real boost. To still be in contention at halftime would have been a great achievement in itself but having had the guile to score two goals was enough to give them real confidence.
Abdulrahman Fawzi could have, and arguably should have, been the first player to score a World Cup hat trick for an African country, a record that has still not been achieved to this day. The Egyptian collected the ball in the centre and weaved past the Hungarian defence before netting what he thought was his third goal, which would have put his side 3-2 up after being two goals down. Alas, Italian referee Rinaldo Barlassina ruled it out, claiming that it was offside.
At the time, this non-goal was extremely contentious. Many believed that this goal should have stood, with his teammate, Mustafa Kamel Mansour, stating that “When the game was 2-2, my colleague Fawzi took the ball from the centre and dribbled past all the Hungarian players to score a third goal. But the referee cancelled the goal as an offside”. This decision felt wrong, but things only got worse for the poor Egyptians, as they suffered from even more abhorrent refereeing.
The Hungarians scored two more goals. The third goal was as legitimate as they come, but it was the fourth goal, scored by Géza Toldi just after the one-hour mark, which caused a storm. Mustafa Mansour spoke to the BBC in 2002, recounting the injustice that befell Egypt that day. “The Hungarians fourth goal came from a serious foul against me. I caught the ball from a cross but their striker hit me with his knees in my chest. His elbow broke my nose and he even pushed me behind the goal-line.”
A one-goal deficit can be relatively easily overturned, but a two-goal margin against a superior team with the clock ticking down… was a hurdle too far for this Egyptian team. Had their seemingly legitimate third goal counted when the game was 2-2, or if this violent assault in the build-up to the fourth Hungarian goal been denied then who knows, perhaps Egypt could have gone on to win, reaching the last eight. From here, who knows? It is not my place to speculate or rewrite the past, only to detail what has happened.
For Hungary, the disappointment of the 1924 Olympics had been overcome with this triumph. For the Egyptian players, defeat hurt. They can take pride in the knowledge that they pushed a strong, ambitious and talented European nation so hard. As difficult as it was to accept the controversial refereeing decisions, the fact that these played such a crucial part in this match goes some way to showcasing how well Egypt played.
Eliminated after only one 90-minute match, the squad set sail back to Egypt, hopeful that they could come back stronger four years later at the 1938 World Cup. They didn’t. Egypt did not qualify for the World Cup until 1990. Staggeringly though, Africa didn’t produce another applicant until the 1970 edition. The next 36 years saw a World War, an African boycott and years of corruption and malpractice mean that the World Cup was not the global affair that it should have been. Change was afoot but at the expense of decades of struggle and hardship.