Football is Egypt’s most popular sport; the Egyptian national team being the most successful in African Cup history. A cafe filled with people of all ages watching a game is a familiar sight across the country. Alaa al-Aswany writes that “Egyptians are attached to soccer the way the French are to wine.” While Egyptians may be united in their fandom, Christians insist that it is only Muslims who get to play.
Some people assume from footballer Remon Zakhry ’s name that he is either a foreigner or an Egyptian using Remon as a moniker. However, when they realize that he is Coptic Christian, there is a shift in the way people deal with him.
After years of playing with a local team, Zakhry thought he’d struck gold when he was about to sign to join Gouna club. “I was sitting in a meeting with the club coach, Ismail Youssef, to sign my contract,” 25-year-old Zakhry recounts. “I presented my ID to complete the contract and Youssef saw my name. He was surprised to learn that Remon is my real name and not a nickname. He returned my ID and left the room.”
“The contractor attending the meeting told me later that Youssef doesn’t like to work with Christians,” he adds. Youssef, a famous former Zamalek Club player, denied discriminating against Zakhry in comments to private news website Masrawy, saying that players usually use religious discrimination as justification for their poor talent.
However, Zakhry believes that if he was not qualified he wouldn’t have been sitting with Youssef to sign the contract in the first place.
Egyptian football fans have rarely seen a football player whose name is indicative of his Christian identity, but they all know that the famous former player for Al-Ahly Club and Egypt’s national team, Hany Ramzy, was a Copt. Ramzy was the only Christian to play on Egypt’s national team in the 1990s, and served as the coach of Egypt’s Olympic football team in 2012.
When claims are made that Egypt’s Christians are discriminated against in football, Ramzy is often invoked. He played for several teams in Europe, and some commentators believe it was the success and prestige he earned in Europe that enabled him to get so far in Egypt. The blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer describes him as the “exception that proves the rule.”
There have been no other Christian players in the national team and a few in Egypt’s local teams. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these included: Nasser Farouk, former gatekeeper for Ghazl al-Mahalla, Emad Shawqy, former gatekeeper for Talae’ al-Geesh, and 1980s Ismaili Club player Mohsen Abdel Messieh.
Christians claim that Coptic players with talent have little to no chance of success in football due to discrimination and exclusion. In his 2010 book Copts and Sports: A Goal in the Playground of Extremism, sports journalist at Watani newspaper Nour Qaldas argued that football has turned into a field where religion plays a crucial role.
In his book, Qaldas traces the discrimination Copts face in football to early stages, present even when young players apply to join clubs in the under-18 section, making it less possible to have well-trained Coptic talent further on.
“Christians do not play football in Egypt. This is the first thing I would always hear when I’d apply to play football in clubs,” says Zakhry who currently plays for the local Assiut-based Abu Tieg Club.
Zakhry says he had a rare bit of luck in a career marred by discrimination when he started playing at the local Petrol Assiut Club in southern Egypt.
When Zakhry applied to join a team to represent Upper Egypt in a local tournament two years ago, the team’s coach was not ashamed to openly discriminate against him due to his religion, he recounts.
On finding out that he was Christian, the coach, who was in charge of choosing 22 players from the camp to join the local tournament, said to him, “Why do you play football? You [Christians] have no connection to football.”
After this, Zakhry did not expect to make it. “But it seems I was too good not to be chosen. When he announced the final choices, he listed the names of 21 of the players, and would not bring himself to say my name out loud.”
Zakhry’s troubles with the coach did not end there. During the tournament, Zakhry says, the coach would try to convert him to Islam, as well as make disparaging comments about his faith. “He told me he never loved Christians and that he had to change apartments three times because he had Christian neighbors.”
After playing for some time with Petrol Assiut, Zakhry thought he would finally get his chance to play in the Egyptian Football League when it looked like he would get signed by Gouna club. A private club owned by Egyptian tycoon Samih Sawiris, himself a Coptic businessman, Gouna often plays in the Egyptian Football League.
“Joining Gouna would have made a huge difference in my career,” he laments.
Zakhry went back to playing with Petrol Assiut and later joined Abu Tieg Club, where he currently plays. He says he has not faced discrimination in either of these clubs.
Discrimination faced by talented Coptic football players is often not explicit. At an admissions test at Ghazl al-Mahalla club, coaches told Mina Halim that they would call him back, but never did.
“I applied as a goalkeeper. During the test, I managed to prevent 14 out of 15 strikes, and the coaching crew were impressed by my performance,” Halim recounts.
His only problem was that his name was Mina, a Christian name, he says. “I didn’t even get to finish saying my name, they interrupted me and said they will call me later, and they didn’t.”
Losing hope at making any progress towards his dream of being a goalkeeper in Egypt, Halim moved to the UAE where he now works as a coach for a local team. “My real chance should have been there in Egypt, my country,” he says. “Being Christian should not be something you are punished for.”
Halim’s relative, Mina Milad, also dreamt of a career in football. Milad applied to three different local clubs, but was not accepted by any of them on the basis of his religion, he believes.
To improve his chances, he joined a training camp in Baladeyat al-Mahalla Club two years ago. But there too, he was not afforded the same chances as the other Muslim players. “Usually the trainer allows all participants to play to evaluate their performance, but I never played. I was there for three months and my feet never touched the pitch,” he says.
It was the same experience every time he applied to a club. A tourism graduate, Milad works as an administrator at a pharmaceutical company. “I couldn’t depend on my football talent. I have to live my life and earn a living,” he says.
The absence of Copts in Egyptian football appears to have been tacitly taken for granted for a long time, but in recent years, a number of cases have come to public attention.
Al-Ahly Club, one of Egypt’s biggest sports clubs, was accused of discriminating against Copts wishing to join the under-18 team twice in 2016.
Tony Atef, 12, performed very well on the club’s tests, and the coach asked him to register on the team. But once the administrator saw the cross on his right hand, he refused to register him, according to Atef’s older brother, Bishoy. After the story went viral in May, Tony was re-enrolled in the admission tests. Head of the club’s under-18 department, Adel Teama, apologized to Atef, saying that the incident was an “unintended mistake.”
Mina Essam, 13, had a similar experience with Al-Ahly. His father shared his story with the media in August 2016, claiming that the club rejected his son on the basis of his religion after he had passed several admission tests.
Essam had been on his way to another one of these tests when he was told his name was not on the list and was denied entry at the club gates. His father claimed his religion was the only clear basis for excluding his son, allegations repeatedly denied by the club’s administration.
In the wake of the Rio Olympics in 2016, the US-based organization Coptic Solidarity submitted a complaint to the International Olympic Committee and FIFA claiming that Egypt routinely discriminates against Coptic athletes.
The organization pointed out that of 122 Egyptian athletes competing in the Rio Olympics, not one was a Copt, adding that Egypt’s 2012 London delegation similarly did not include any Copts. Coptic Solidarity argued that the absence of Coptic athletes from the Olympic teams as well as semi-professional and professional clubs in Egypt was the “product of deep-rooted discrimination that exists in the administration of athletics and football in Egypt, and in Egyptian society at large.”
The organization said it was in communication with at least 10 athletes willing to testify against the religious discrimination they encountered in Egypt’s world of sports, and called on the Olympic Committee and FIFA to send investigative committees to Egypt to examine the matter.
In his book, Qaldas pointed to remarks made by Hassan Shehata while he was serving as national coach about how he chooses players.
Shehata, who led Egypt to three successive victories at the African Cup of Nations Championships in 2006, 2008, and 2010, said in that a player’s good conduct and relationship with God are important factors in choosing players who can represent Egypt internationally.
“Without this, we will not include any player regardless of his abilities. I always work on ensuring players who wear Egypt’s jersey have a good relationship with God,” he explained, referring to the team’s former player Mohamed Zidan.
“Zidan did not used to pray, and I did not like him being away from us during prayers,” said Shehata. “I met with him before our game against Brazil and convinced him of the importance of prayer, and he has been committed to praying since then.”
Shehata was heavily criticized for his comments, which he later retracted in a long BBC interview.
Asked about the absence of Copts within the ranks of the national team, Shehata denied the existence of discrimination in Egyptian football, arguing that there is “no single Coptic player currently, in the first or second class clubs, who is qualified enough to join the national team,” adding that: “I select the players from clubs, not from the streets.”
Responding to a question about why youth coaches do not go to where the Coptic players are, Shehata said that if he came across a Coptic player of a sufficient standard in the national clubs, he would work with him, but that he would not go to Coptic sport centers.
While Shehata does not look for talent in Coptic sport centers, this is where most Coptic players are. Faced with exclusion, talented Coptic youth who do not want to give up playing find their haven within the church.
The church organizes a football league each year, with teams split into under- and over-18s from each governorate. The winning team get to meet the pope in a ceremony. While such activities enable Coptic footballers to play, those who want a professional career in the game bemoan the lack of exposure.
“This league rarely attracts media attention,” says Andrew Rafaat, who plays in the league as well as coaches under-18s. “Currently, you might find one or two newspapers covering the finals when the pope awards the prize to the winning team, but that’s it. It is way too far from the exposure any footballer needs to build a good career.”
Like many Copts, Rafaat applied to various clubs, but never made it into any of them. Later, after taking several professional coaching courses, his attempts to make some headway into football through coaching was also met with no success. Now he teaches Physical Education at a school, and plays and coaches at the church.
He laments what he calls “systematic discrimination” against Copts in football: “I completely lost hope of playing in any of the mainstream sports clubs in Egypt, he says. “If I want to play, there is no option but the church’s sporting activities.”
Zakhry believes that discrimination against Copts in football has become so institutionalized and normalized that Copts themselves have internalized it.
When he wanted to pursue playing football as a career, his father discouraged him, saying it would be impossible for him to succeed as a Christian. “My father told me he had never seen a Copt playing football professionally; it was my Muslim trainer who encouraged me. We have taken the issue for granted to the extent many of us don’t fight it.”
But Milad believes the issue goes beyond normalizing the status quo or fighting it.
“We face discrimination on all levels,” Milad explains. “Football is a popular game and it is widely believed that Copts should not get the fame and wealth that comes with being a successful player. We are always confronted with coaches who are extremists. This is not just limited to small clubs; big clubs do the same, too.”
“Even if our behavior normalizes this exclusion,” he says, “we should know that it is a result of continued discrimination, not a choice.”
Mina Halim’s family name was changed based on his request.