(CNN) — For the first time since the Arab Spring of 2011 — and the suspension of its domestic league the following year — Egypt’s national team will finally play in a major football tournament.
The seven-time Africa Cup of Nations champion arrives in Gabon with an experienced squad anchored by Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Elneny and Hull City defender Ahmed Elmohamady, alongside exciting AS Roma striker Mohamed Salah.
Egypt booked its 23rd appearance at the tournament by qualifying unbeaten from Group G ahead of three-time champion Nigeria.
Elmohamady, 29, took time off his hectic training schedule to share his thoughts with CNN on what this tournament means for Egypt, advice for Elneny in embracing the British weather, and keeping up with Egyptian TV from his adopted northern English home.
Considering all that has happened in Egypt since you last won in 2010, how important is it to do well in Gabon?
“This is going to be important for us. After all these things, and not qualifying for the last three Africa Cup of Nations, all the people in Egypt are looking forward to having their national team back in the tournament.
“You know the feeling when we won it before, and how happy it made the people — so everyone is looking forward to us getting the best out of the tournament, which is coming back with the cup.
“Of course, the fans expect us to win it.”
What will be the biggest challenges for Egypt in Gabon?
“The biggest challenge is to show Africa that Egypt is back again. We are there to win the cup, not to just to play and go back to Egypt
“We want to show everyone what we have got. I’m looking forward to it; I feel we are going to win this cup.”
Do you foresee any surprises in Gabon?
“Uganda is doing well. They are a good team, they have a good manager (Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic), and no one expects them to do well.
“They are in our group (along with Ghana and Mali). They are going to be a surprise in the competition.”
Are there any young players to look out for?
“I know the ones on our team. We have loads of young players; they are going to be flying.”
Speaking of which, people refer to Mohamed Salah as “The Egyptian Messi.” Is this putting too much pressure on the 24-year-old?
“Everyone expects him to score goals, to give a good performance every match. Of course it puts pressure on him, but he’s dealing with it well.
“Hopefully he’ll keep doing that, for him as a player and for the national team.”
What qualities do you see in him that are world class?
“He’s not yet a world-class player. He’s a very good player, but he’s not Ronaldo or Messi yet. I hope one day he will be.
“He needs to work harder and improve. I know the Italian league is good, but hopefully he will come back to the Premier League again with a big team. It would help him a lot.” (Chelsea sold Salah to Roma in 2016 for a reported fee of over $15 million after he had two loan spells in Italy)
Is it a benefit to have so many Europe-based Egyptians — eight — competing in AFCON?
“Yes, It’s going to help improve the quality of the national team. Before we only had two or three players (in Europe), so it’s growing more.
“I think the clubs now letting players go to Europe at a young age is going to help.”
Did you speak to Elneny or winger Ramadan Sobhi — who plays for Premier League team Stoke — when they came to England?
“Yeah, of course you have to (help) as a player from the same country in any little way you can.
“Ramadan is only 19; he had never been in Europe before. He came straight from Egypt to England, and I was in the same situation. So I spoke to both of them, and to be honest they are doing well.
“Whenever Elneny plays for Arsenal he is great. Ramadan didn’t play as much as everyone expected (He has nine appearances for Stoke this season). But he’s still young and his chances will come — and he will take them because he is a very, very good player.”
What advice did you give them?
“Don’t complain about the weather, don’t complain about the food, and listen to the manager. It will be difficult for the first few months, but once you just get on with it, everything will be fine.
“You have to train hard, you have to look after yourself — not just on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. You have to put this kind of stuff in their ears, because these things are going to help them adapt very quick in English football.”
How has playing in the English Premier League helped you?
“It changed everything. I think it is the best league in the world. As a player you stay in the best form in English football. It gives you loads of experience — not just as a footballer but as a man.
“My experience in the Premier League is the best thing that happened to me as a footballer.”
How did you adjust to English football?
“Before I came, to be honest most of the talk I heard about the Premier League was about how physical it is. When I arrived I found that technically you also have to be at your best, because loads of players here are good technically.
“I think I have improved that part of my game very much in my seven years here.”
You’ve played in a number of different positions in midfield and defense. Where are you most comfortable?
“It’s not a bad thing to play in different positions to give the manager different options. I enjoy wherever I play, and I give my best for my team.
“They have moved me around from right midfielder to right-back. And I play right wing-back now, which, to be honest, is my best position.
“I grew up in Egypt playing this position and I’ve played it with the national team for a long time.”
Are there any English cultural habits that you have adopted?
“Of course, loads of things (laughs). Fish and chips is very popular here in Hull so I’ve adapted to that. And the accent as well. I’ve been here in the north (of England) for a long time. I was in Sunderland first and now Hull, so I picked up this Northern accent.
“I like England; I think it’s one of the best countries in the world. People here are very friendly. I would like to stay for as long as I can to finish my career here.”
Do you stay in touch with Egyptian culture while in England?
“We have everything here. We have satellite TV, we watch the Egyptian league, we watch Egyptian movies and soap operas. It’s not a big issue. I feel like I’m at home.
“We even have Egyptian food and some Arabic restaurants here.”
I must ask you about Hull City. You’re battling in the relegation zone now: What’s the key to turning things around in the second half of the season?
“It’s a hard time now, but we have to stay positive. We are not far from (moving out of the relegation zone). It’s one game that gets you up.
“In the Premier League anything is possible.”
Editor’s note: This interview took place before Hull sacked manager Mike Phelan and replaced him with Portuguese coach Marco Silva on January 5.