Preparations for the final match of the Gabkhana Ramadan football tournament in Ezbet Khairallah have started several hours ahead of the game. The dirt pitch is sprayed with water, after which a young boy pushes a large metal cylinder across the wet ground to level the field. The pitch is then swept, and four people are assigned to mark the lines that will set the boundaries of play. Two of them hold down the ends of long threads; the third moves along this extended line to mark out the borders with white lime; and the fourth monitors the process from a distance to make sure the measurements are accurately drawn. At another point in the field, the corner poles are being installed. The match commentator is doing soundchecks. The seats are set up, including those for special guests. Everything is ready.
The final match of this year’s tournament is scheduled to start at 10 pm on the evening of the 23rd day of Ramadan and will see Al-Gabkhana football team go up against Al-Arab. Usually, the final match is scheduled during the last days of Ramadan, but rumors are swirling about the date of the match being moved up this year because the tournament’s sponsor plans to perform umrah right afterward.
The two teams gather in the dressing rooms of the adjacent mosque. They are geared up. Players joke around as they change. Shortly after, children gather around their momentarily adored, nonchalant stars. World Cup finals or Gabkhana finals? It does not make a difference. These are real players who wear their neat outfits and only joke with each other before the game.
Yousri Hamad, the tournament’s organizer and Al-Gabkhana’s team manager, is following up with all the preparations. Hamad works in fodder trading with his brother, Khaled. It is an exceptional job for a neighborhood that is mostly dominated by craftsmen (particularly carpenters), tuk tuk drivers and small coffee shop owners. As a result, Hamad and his brother have come to have some of the most clout in the area, and they were allowed to organize the tournament with relative ease.
Ramadan is the season for football tournaments, as everyone knows. But this tournament does not stand out among the thousands of other Ramadan tournaments organized across Egypt’s cities and villages. The final prize is quite meager compared to others. And the pitch is made of dirt — unlike most other fields, which have upgraded to green tartan track over the past few years.
Located in the south of Old Cairo, Ezbet Khairallah occupies a rocky plateau through which the Ring Road, the major highway that encircles much of Greater Cairo, passes. Until the 1970s, the desert plateau was completely empty, except for the historic Gabkhana building, which was constructed in 1892 by Mohamed Ali Pasha to function as a gunpowder storage house far from the city.
In the mid-70s, migration from Upper Egypt and rural areas to the capital boomed. Many of the migrants could not afford to rent Cairo apartments, so they turned to the plateau and began building small rooms using stone they found in the area. By the early 80s, the plateau emerged as a magnet for those who had nowhere to go, and was soon on its way to becoming a full-fledged residential neighborhood that would house one million people.
On government maps, Ezbet Khairallah lies between the neighborhoods of Old Cairo, Dar al-Salam, Basateen and Khalifa. But Ezbet Khairallah’s residents consider themselves from Old Cairo.
Residential construction gradually grew closer and closer to the Gabkhana building. As the footprint of the community grew, residents put in place the infrastructure they needed: electricity, water and drainage systems, and then, in 1983, the football field. In 1990, Hamad began organizing the annual Ramadan tournaments, and his team has been participating since.
The dirt pitch separates the residential houses from the wall of the Gabkhana building. “If it weren’t for the football field, all of these houses would have just been 3 or 4 meters away from the historic Gabkhana building,” says Hamad. At one point, residents brought large stones to outline the border of the field and protect it from encroachment. Over the years, this border evolved into an iron fence. This is the only open space in Ezbet Khairallah for children and adults.
The neighborhood has always remained outside official consideration, but, for one night, it moves into the limelight.
Bikya, short for Mohamed Bikya, is attending the final match of Gabkhana’s Ramadan tournament for a number of reasons. He is both the manager and a player for a football team that carries his name. He is quite eager to watch a good game and see who wins. But he is also hoping to get back the LE500 pounds he paid for his team’s participation in the tournament. It was unusual, but his team, which was considered among the favorites to win the tournament, lost in the very first round. Bikya believes he was a victim of bad luck and has tried to petition the organizers for his money to be returned, believing that if the home club wins, the organizers will be more inclined to decide in his favor.
Bikya is 28 years old. He spent his childhood and adolescent years trying to become a professional football player. He played on the Dina Farms, Tala’ea El Geish, and El Dakhleya football clubs. His monthly wage as a minor football player was LE150.
As his name suggests, Bikya’s family works as junk (robabikya) collectors. Bikya was forced to put his dream of a football career on pause when he was 17 years old in order to help his family with work. He then got caught up with usual life affairs and married before turning 18. But he still has his Football Association membership cards. It is through the Ramadan tournaments that Bikya relives his past.
During one of the earlier matches in the tournament, one of Bikya’s star players, Genny, was badly injured and asked to be replaced — a disaster. “I buried my face in my hands. People said to me, ‘You will either lose or lose.” And, indeed, I lost this match,” Bikya says.
He had one game left to win to qualify for the round of 16. But before the match, his goalkeeper’s sister died in labor, so he could not make it. Bikya decided to play dumb and bring another goalkeeper who was not on his players list.
They played the match and won without anyone noticing. But a few hours later, Hamad called Bikya and told him that the losing team had objected to the participation of a new goalkeeper, and that the match had to be replayed. Bikya resisted at first, but he thought his team too good to be scared. “I told myself that it was just a rematch,” he says. They match was replayed but ended in a tie. It was not enough for Bikya’s team to move to the following round.
The roster for most teams is more or less fixed, but there are always one or two players — professional Ramadan football players — in each tournament that are not bound to particular teams. And they only play if they judge the financial reward to be adequate.
For certain elite players, the financial reward is fixed and is not affected by winning or losing. As for the others, they only get paid a portion of the final prize should their team win the tournament or take second place.
Prior to the tournament, each team has to submit a list of players. This list cannot be changed during the tournament. Every team has to pay a subscription fee, which can be paid by the manager himself — who then receives a share of the profits — or collected from the team’s players. Most teams register in several tournaments every year, which maximizes their chances for profit. One particular manager has two teams that participate in eight different tournaments. “He makes around LE100,000 pounds every Ramadan,” Bikya points out.
There is a lot of money at stake, which is why every team manager spends a significant amount of time looking for new talent to feed into his team. This year, Bikya found Sukondo and Sehna. “They are the biggest two players in Old Cairo. They’re terrifying,” he proclaims.
Bikya heard about the tournaments organized in “Nasr City and those places,” as he refers to them. Prizes there reach up to LE100,000. In Old Cairo, the prize ranges between LE20,000 and LE30,000 for the winning team. But the final prize in Gabkhana’s tournament is only LE10,000. While the prize money is not necessarily enticing, the tournament remains one of the most respected in Old Cairo. “It’s universally well-known,” says Bikya.
Bikya is attending the final match to cheer for Al-Arab, which has dominated the pitch in every match it’s played. The team’s audience is not big, however, with Al-Gabkhana — the home team — drawing most of the crowd. Everyone is looking forward to a fiercely contested match.
Twenty-five centimeters away from the touchline, spectators sit on the concrete rocks that surround the pitch, atop of which the iron fence is also erected. The different groups come with their respective equipment: drums for the teenagers and laser pointers for the children. Halabisa and ice cream vendors move between the masses, trying to sell as much as possible before everyone’s attention turns to the match.
Mohamed Musallam, the tournament’s sponsor and the most important guest of the evening, arrives in a car driven by his personal chauffeur. He is wearing a white galabeya and is accompanied by his wife. She is the only woman attending the final match. They are greeted by Khaled, Hamad’s brother, who is wearing a suit without a tie. Khaled is mostly giving his attention to Musallam, not the match. They sit in the main booth, where tables with white, linen tablecloth and mineral water bottles have been set up. They sit down and chat the way important people do in the VIP box of a final match.
Both teams line up outside the field and wait for the signal. With the match set to begin in moments, the players move toward the center of the pitch. The referee and his assistants stand next to each other with one team on each side. The national anthem starts to play. Musallam and Khaled stand at attention. The players’ faces are serious.
The referee flips a coin to determine which team will kick off. Players line up to take photos. After the formalities are over, some players take off their shoes because they prefer to play barefoot. They start warming up to the applause of the crowd.
Al-Gabkhana begins with its usual players. But the manager of Al-Arab decides to keep his best player, Abdo — whom the commentator keeps referring to as “dark-skinned” — on the bench until later, a surprising and risky formation that angers Bikya.
The match runs for two 20-minute halves. The commentator keeps stressing that members of the audience must not walk onto the pitch during the match. Then, the referee blows the starting whistle.
Al-Gabkhana scores their first goal 10 minutes into the first half. It is the only goal either side would score in the first half.
The teams switch sides, and the second half kicks off. Al-Arab’s head coach substitutes Abdo into the match. But that does not stop Al-Gabkhana from scoring their second goal. Hadary, the goal keeper for Al-Arab, is not “in forma.”
The home team fans begin to get more and more excited. But this does not discourage Al-Arab, who manage to score two goals in quick succession, bringing the match to a tie.
The commentator keeps reminding everyone that Musallam, the tournament’s sponsor — whom the commentator refers to as “the richest of the rich in Old Cairo and an upcoming MP, God willing” — is attending the match. Musallam was a strong supporter of the recent constitutional amendments that will extend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s stay in power. He even organized a huge pro-amendments march “to be proud of.”
Musallam, a famous scrap dealer in Old Cairo, is planning to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Most candidates and parliamentarians from Old Cairo sponsor the Gabkhana football tournament one year or the other.
“Every parliamentarian who obtained a seat had to pass by here first. This field brings them good luck,” says Hamad. And this is why Musallam is keen on sponsoring the Gabkhana tournament, even though he was also sponsoring other tournaments in Old Cairo. “He said that [Gabkhana] was the first place he thought of to sponsor a tournament, one that he would attend personally,” Hamad explains.
Sponsors handle the tournament awards and player’s uniforms, all of which have “sponsored by Mohamed Musallam” written on them.
Al-Gabkhana score two more goals, but Al-Arab continues to fight. One of Al-Gabkhana’s players starts kicking a player from Al-Arab. It is not clear why, but tension ensues. The referee decides to suspend both players for two minutes. Bikya tries to calm the Al-Gabkhana’s player down, but the latter is quite angry. “Fuck this tournament, man!” he shouts.
Al-Arab scores another goal, bringing them within one goal of Al-Gabkhana. The match time is running out. The referee signals one minute of extra time. A combination of resoluteness and luck enables Al-Arab to score the fourth goal. It’s a tie.
The referee blows the whistle immediately after the fourth goal is scored. The audience storms into the pitch despite the commentator’s screaming pleas. Both teams get ready for the penalty shootout, while the crowd assembles in a three-quarter circle around the goalposts.
The commentator repeatedly states that the shootout will not start until the audience members leave the field of play. But to wait for this to happen probably means staying up all night.
Each person chooses a place to stand; no one will move. The shootout begins. Al-Arab miss their second penalty. Al-Gabkhana scores all of them. The home team wins the tournament.
As soon as the song Wallah wa Amalouha al-Regala (By God, the men did it) starts playing, Al-Arab and its small crowd of supporters leaves. Al-Gabkhana’s fans are overwhelmed with joy. Someone carries Hamad on his shoulders. Everyone gathers around and hugs the team players, taking selfies. They walk the entire field and greet people sitting in the VIP box. The tournament’s sponsor and potential parliamentary candidate looks pleased. Khaled, Hamad’s brother who does not care much for football, looks proud.
The awards for best player, best goalkeeper and best team manager were already decided upon before the match. Hamad and his team take them all. Musallam first hands over the second-place medals to Al-Arab, followed by the first place medals to Al-Gabkhana. The home team raise the championship trophy and join the crowds in celebration.
A while later, Musallam expresses his desire to leave. He walks onto the pitch to take a final photo with the champions who hold up the trophy. The song stops playing, and everyone remembers the approaching sohour. Everything ends after the ceremony. And, if all goes well, the silence will carry on until next year.
Bikya does not get his LE500 back, but that won’t stop him from joining next year’s Ramadan tournament. “If the day comes when this tournament is cancelled, we will undergo mental hardship,” he says. It is true that money is what is pleasurable about football, even though this tournament does not give much. But what is more important, Bikya explains, is that “you play against pros, and you yourself become a pro.” For him, this is the true and only pleasure.