Egypt’s ‘political’ football

Association football, or simply football (also known as soccer), being the most widely followed sport on the planet, is much more than just a game in many parts of the world. In many contexts, football has become an outlet for otherwise silent tensions and conflicts on the club level, or a way to rally around the country’s flag to suppress or divert attention from such tensions and conflicts on the national team level.

In the current Egyptian impasse, however, football talk has once again, after a long turbulent interruption following the January 25 revolution, occupied people’s minds with the announcement of the World Cup qualification draw last Monday. In order to situate football in the historical context of Egypt’s revolution, we need to first understand the politics of this sport in and outside Egypt on both the local club and national levels.

Derby games between local club rivals have rich histories and are usually associated with class, ethnic or political conflicts. Perhaps the most famous example is El Clásico between Spanish club giants Real Madrid (associated with the Spanish throne and Francisco Franco during his reign) and Barcelona (associated with Catalan aspirations for autonomy/separation). Another famous derby, and probably one of the oldest, is the Old Firm between Scottish clubs Rangers and Celtic. The Old Firm has been associated with various types of conflict in Scotland: ethnic (Rangers supporters have historically been mostly Ulster Scots while Celtic supporters have historically been mostly Irish Scots), religious (Protestant vs. Catholic), political (loyalist vs. republican, especially in the context of the Northern-Ireland conflict), and even ideological (conservative vs. socialist).

In the Middle East, the most politically charged football rivalry is the Jordanian derby between Al-Faisaly (named after the Hashemite King Faisal and supported by “native” Jordanians) and Al-Wihdat (named after the famous Palestinian refugee camp and largely supported by the Palestinians living in Jordan).    

Meanwhile, football has been the source of national aspiration, and there are numerous examples of regimes, especially dictatorships, investing heavily in their national football teams as a symbol of unity. As national projects they then divert attention from pressing political and social issues. The most famous examples include Italy’s hosting of the World Cup in 1934 and its two World Cup titles in 1934 and 1938 during the Mussolini era, and Argentina’s hosting of the World Cup and ultimate victory on home soil in 1978 while it was under military rule. It is worth noting, however, that this came amid widespread allegations of fixing the famous and controversial game against Peru ending in a 6-0 victory for Argentina and securing a place for it in the final — a result it was argued would not have been possible without a deal of some sorts between Argentina’s military junta and the Peruvian regime.

In Egypt, many political activists have looked at football simply as a diversionary tactic, especially towards the end of the Mubarak’s rule. The three successive CAN (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations) titles won by the national team between 2006 and 2010, under the stewardship of famous coach Hassan Shehata, an accomplished footballer with allegedly strong ties to the Mubarak family, were portrayed as a source of national pride. This came after Egypt’s disastrous bid to host the 2010 World Cup ending in a humbling zero vote received from members of the Executive Committee of FIFA (football’s international governing body). It was by and large a campaign for local public consumption without any serious effort to reach the target audience (members of the Committee and their respective football associations and governments).

These years also witnessed the beginning of two very important phenomena in the Egyptian football scene: the launching of dedicated television channels with broadcasting rights to Egyptian Premiere League games, and the Ultras (hardcore organized football supporters) gradually gaining ground as the main support base for the more famous Egyptian clubs.

These television channels featured celebrity hosts, usually accomplished footballers themselves at the national and club level, covering domestic football in characteristically lengthy programs. Football was not the only subject matter and they often stood accused of sending all kinds of messages, explicit or implicit, in support of the status quo. By contrast, the Ultras were seen as rebel groups with unclear agendas posing a serious threat to the football status quo, and also perhaps on a political level as well. The Ultras repeatedly clashed with the police — and the television hosts, at least a couple of whom were police officers themselves.

The anti-climactic end to this period in the history of Egyptian football was the famous 0-1 defeat suffered by Egypt at the hands of Algeria in November 2009 game in the Al-Merrikh Stadium in Omdurman in Sudan. This loss killed Egypt’s hopes of reaching the World Cup for the first time in two decades, which had been riding high after a 2-0 victory over Algeria in Cairo tied both team on points and goal difference in their African qualification group, hence requiring this tie-breaker.

This game came after weeks of tension between Egyptian and Algerian officials, footballers and fans. It reached unprecedented proportions, ending with the stoning of the bus carrying the Algerian team before the Cairo game. There were subsequently several attacks against Egyptian interests in Algeria in retaliation. In the aftermath of the Omdurman game, there were also numerous reports of alleged attacks by Algerian fans on Egyptian fans outside the stadium, which prompted the Egyptian government to send planes to Sudan to evacuate the Egyptian fans. The two teams met in the 2010 CAN and the Egyptian team, on its way to the trophy, avenged its loss by a 4-0 resounding victory over the team that stood in the way of Egypt qualifying to the World Cup.

Later, it was revealed that Algerian media exaggerated the attacks on Algerian players and supporters in Cairo, and that Egyptian media was equally guilty of exaggerating the attacks on Egyptian supporters in Omdurman. It became clear to most supporters in both countries that the Egyptian and Algerian governments were keen on reaching the World Cup and on fueling this rivalry for reasons that had little to do with football, as the dream of the national team reaching the global stage became a matter of national interest. In fact, some Egyptian fans actually supported the Algerian team during its run in the 2010 World Cup when it managed to secure a draw against the mighty England but failed to go beyond the group stage.   

The January 25 revolution erupted a few months after those events, and some even claim that had Egypt reached the 2010 World Cup, this might have given the Mubarak regime a lifeline of at least a few more months. The revolution turned the Egyptian football stage. Footballing activity was initially suspended. The Ultras, mostly rebellious young men with years of experience in street fights with the police, joined the revolutionary ranks as individuals if not as groups. The national team was weakened and unusually failed to qualify for the 2012 CAN. More importantly, many accomplished footballers, including the famous Shehata himself, were exposed as supporters of the Mubarak regime.

Things went further downhill as the clashes between the Ultras and the police continued, but this time around with clear political connotations. Egyptian football reached the bottom with the Port Said Stadium massacre of February 2012, when a few minutes after a win for Masry of Port Said over Ahly of Cairo (the most successful and widely followed club in the country) in a Premier League game, tens of mainly Ahly supporters were killed and many more injured amidst accusations of police complacence if not outright conspiracy.

The saga continued with footballing activity suspended again and the league cancelled, and with the Ultras exerting pressure for a fair and quick trial. The verdict, passed in January 2013, sentenced many Masry Ultras to death and sparked tension in Port Said resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries in a matter of days. During the course of two years, Egyptian football, once associated with joy and national pride, became associated with violence and tragedy.

This sentenced the Egyptian national football team, the center of media attention for years, to an era of near oblivion. At this critical juncture, Robert “Bob” Bradley, an accomplished coach with the US team, took over responsibility for the Egyptian team in September 2011. Bradley started poorly, failing to qualify the team for the 2013 CAN — now the second time in a row for Egypt to fail to qualify in spite holding the record for most CAN trophies. But his hard work and professionalism gradually paid off. Bradley and his staff managed to combine the experience of veterans of Egypt’s 2006-10 CAN conquests, most notably, Mohamed Abu Trika, with the dynamism of young players coming through the ranks of Egypt’s youth teams, most notably, the explosive young talent, Mohamed Salah, now playing for FC Basel of Switzerland. This combination led the Egyptian team, for the first time in recent memory, to win all World Cup qualifier games, home and away, in spite of huge obstacles: very little support and media attention, playing home games in empty grounds, and local football activity suspended or close to suspended.

Bradley’s team is now at the center of attention having after playing against Ghana’s national team (arguably the best national team in Africa) and reaching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

It will be very difficult for the current government to use the national football team as a diversionary tactic as in the old days. However, interim government, which took over after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in the summer of 2013, would certainly welcome any good news on the football front.

The government has already fallen slightly out of favor with football fans in light of recent reports of two separate incidents involving verbal and minor physical clashes between footballers and army officers. The first incident involves a verbal clash between Abu Trika, Ahly’s and the country’s most accomplished footballer, and an army officer, when Abu Trika reportedly accused the military of killing children. The second incident was between Mahmoud Abdel Razek “Shikabala,” arguably the biggest star of Zamalek (Ahly’s archrival and the second most successful club in Egypt and Africa after Ahly), and another army officer, reportedly after an argument over team rivalries turned into a fight.

In the midst of accusations that the events of the summer of 2013 were more of a military coup than a people’s revolution, and with fears that the security apparatus is returning, reports of those incidents involving military personnel and two of the country’s most established footballers raised some eyebrows. Tensions also continue to mount due to the inability of the police to secure attendance for fans in home games when Egyptian clubs play in the African Champions League or for the national team.

It would surely be a huge blow, both to the chances of the national team and to the status of the government within and outside the county, if the return (home) game against Ghana scheduled to be held in November is held abroad or in an empty stadium in Egypt — or even worse, if a security crisis erupts due to the failure to properly secure the stadium or the visiting team.

Bradley and his men have been thrown a huge footballing challenge against favorites Ghana but, whether they like it or not, these games will not be mere sporting events, as political tensions will most certainly surround them. Separating football from politics will probably be even harder if the Egyptian World Cup adventure continues beyond those two games. If Bradley secures passage to the World Cup, he will probably claim the ‘Bob’ title, the nickname given to Mohamed ElBaradei, the most notable leader of the revolution, by the most loyal of his supporters.

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Mohamed Gabr