When Egypt beat Tanzania 2-0 in June to qualify for the 2017 African Cup of Nations, it confirmed their first appearance at the tournament after failing to qualify for the last three editions. For ordinary Egyptians, it was a welcome sight to see their team return to Africa’s premier competition. More so because Egyptian football has gone through more upheaval in the last five years than in its entire history.
There was a time when Egypt domestically and internationally ruled African football. Al Ahly became kings of the African Champions League during the 2000s, winning the competition four times during the decade, as did their fierce league rivals Zamalek in 2002. But it would be on the international scene where Egypt recorded their greatest successes.
The Pharaohs, led by Hassan Shehata, won three successive African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. However, despite failing to reach the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Egyptian football during their golden period produced players of outstanding ability that importantly realised their potential for club and country.
Mohamed Aboutrika, the midfielder who regrettably never graced Europe’s top leagues, was a player at the forefront of Al Ahly’s and Egypt’s dominance. Scoring 167 goals in 356 games for Al Ahly during a 10-year period, as well as reaching 100 caps for Egypt, it showed his durability and talent for club and country.
Essam El-Hadary may be 43 but he is still going strong and is rightly viewed as one of Africa’s best ever goalkeepers. Winning the best goalkeeper award in the 2006 and 2010 African Cup of Nations underlines why he still plays a role for Egypt. In fact, he captained Egypt when they beat Tanzania – returning after a two-year absence – making several fine saves, which included a penalty.
Last but certainly not least, Ahmed Hassan symbolised the beating heart of Egyptian football, as he played a vital role in Egypt’s Nations triumphs. His 184 caps for the Pharaohs remains a quite astounding record.
Those players featured prominently in Egypt’s top flight, but during the national team’s high water mark, Shehata could call upon strikers who had top-flight European experience. Mohamed Zidan and Amir Zaki graced the Bundesliga and Premier League respectively while Mido also featured in English football. All three served Egypt with distinction, although Mido was often known for his fiery outbursts more than his goals.
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In the 2006 African Cup of Nations – that Egypt hosted – semi-final against Senegal, Mido was substituted with the score tied at 1-1 and 11 minutes of normal time remaining. Needless to say, Mido was unimpressed, as he remonstrated with Shehata and both nearly came to blows. Ironically, his replacement Amir Zaki would score the winner with his first touch, as the Egyptian FA banned Mido for six months. Indeed, he missed the final where the Pharaohs would beat Ivory Coast.
With a mixture of European and domestic-based players, Egypt kicked on from winning the 2006 Cup of Nations victory to rule the continent with a iron fist. Pharaohs by name and certainly by nature.
Descent into the abyss
Sadly, when a team achieves total dominance, the only place it can head to next is down. In the case of Egypt, it truly descended into the abyss. It would be the Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa against autocratic governments, which would have a devastating impact on Egyptian society, and its’ football.
The troubles plaguing the sport in Egypt highlighted just how interconnected football and politics are. Then president Hosni Mubarak wasted no time in trying to profit from Egypt’s exploits in the African Cup of Nations – none more so in 2006 when they were hosts. Mubarak made sure he attended all of Egypt’s games to artificially create a sense of unity between he and the people.
Five years later, it would ironically be football fans that united together to overthrow Mubarak, as the protests escalated in size and intensity. They mainly came from Al Ahly and Zamalek – Cairo’s two biggest teams. They fielded a strong presence amongst protesters who took to Tahrir Square to call for the regime’s downfall. Where once these fans fought each other on the terraces, they now stood on common ground in their desire to overthrow the widely-despised Mubarak regime.
Despite Mubarak stepping down from power in 2011, things would soon turn sour. Shehata became a casualty of the revolution, as he resigned in June 2011 after failing to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations. Though his support for Mubarak during the January protests enraged many Egyptians, when the Egyptian FA was purged of Mubarak’s loyalists, Shehata’s days were numbered. He recently said that he was made to resign due to the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) being pressured by an unnamed government official to force him to leave.
The protests in 2011 drastically affected the domestic league, as it was postponed for two months, causing all clubs’ revenue to decrease. But what happened in the following season, on 1 February 2012, is something that Egyptian football has struggled to recover from since.
The rippling effect of Port Said
Al Ahly’s 3-1 defeat away to El Masry in Port Said had been a tempestuous affair. The game was delayed after El Masry’s fans invaded the pitch before kick-off, at half-time and on the three occasions they scored in the second half. But at full-time it would turn deadly.
El Masry’s fans stormed the pitch again – this time in force – as well as attacking the sections where Al Ahly’s fans were located. Whether by clubs, knives or stones, the scene was of utter bedlam and chaos. It was not just Al Ahly fans targeted – so too were the club’s players and coaching staff. As a result, 72 people were killed – all of them Al Ahly supporters – along with 500 injured, as the recriminations soon began to swirl.
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The police on duty at Port Said Stadium were accused of standing by while the violence occurred. Others said the gates at the exits of the stands, where Al Ahly’s fans watched the game, were closed but that the gates behind the El Masry fans were left open. Eyewitnesses among Al Ahly fans inside the stadium said the police did little to stop it. Even fans of El Masry point to possible infiltrators within the home crowd. As El Masry fan Islam al-Sayed said in an interview to an Egyptian paper two days after the tragedy, “We won the game, why would we attack them?”
The impact of the disaster was devastating with Mohamed Aboutrika, Mohamed Barakat and Emad Motaeb announcing their retirement from football. Alas, even though all three players reversed their decisions later on, the fact that these high-profile players, who had previously propelled Egypt to glory, contemplated retirement spoke volumes about the state of the national game.
What the government decided to do next would prove to have a detrimental effect on Egyptian football – its rippling effect still lingering to this day. The authorities cancelled the rest of the 2012 season, leading to three negative consequences.
Firstly, it hurt the domestic clubs of Egypt’s top flight financially, as no games meant no revenue from matches. The figures for the 2011-12 season speak for themselves. According to the Egypt Independent, the EFA stood to make 104 million Egyptian pounds (£4.5 million in today’s currency in the UK) from TV rights for state television and satellite channels to broadcast top-flight matches. However, because the league was suspended just 16 weeks into the season after the Port Said disaster, the EFA made just 38 million Egyptian pounds – merely £1.6 million.
Al Ahly and Zamalek had the consolation of playing in the African Champions League but the other 16 clubs didn’t have that luxury. Suspending the league also meant cancelling the Egypt Cup – for many, the only real chance of silverware.
Secondly, it led to an exodus of foreign players, as financial losses incurred by clubs unable to play meant players and coaches weren’t being paid.
Finally, closing down the league impacted on the national team, the pride and joy of all Egyptians. It’s no coincidence that Egypt failed to qualify for the 2012, 2013 and 2015 Cup of Nations when the country was a bastion of instability.
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In February 2015 the league was suspended again after 20 fans died after they to force themselves into the stadium in Cairo to watch Zamalek and ENPPI. The stampede occurred after police fired tear gas that would lead to the disaster; Egyptian football was in the news yet again for all the wrong reasons.
These incidents led to teams requesting FIFA to play the Pharaohs at neutral venues or empty stadiums. At a stroke, it took away their advantage of playing at home, as winning the 2006 African Cup of Nations showed. Despite these restraints, Bob Bradley did wonders in leading Egypt to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, even if they fell to Ghana after losing 6-1 in the first leg.
Glimmer of hope
The last five years have been traumatic for Egyptian football, but there is hope. Domestically, the league this season is going strong, as restrictions on fans attending matches in large numbers are slowly lifting. In October, 70,000 fans flocked to Alexandria to watch Zamalek in the African Champions League final second leg. Despite this, it will take time to heal rifts in Egyptian football, with the case of Zamalek and fellow top-flight club Ismaily one notable example. Both clubs have threatened to boycott the league due to unfair treatment by referees.
But it is on the international stage where Egypt can reclaim their former glory and allow the Pharaohs to rise from the abyss. Although a strong run in the African Cup of Nations in Gabon would bring much needed cheer to Egyptians, it is the World Cup qualifiers where the opportunity to reach new ground can be realised.
The Pharaohs, under veteran manager Héctor Cúper, lie top of their group with two wins from two matches, which includes a significant 2-0 win against Ghana in November. Reaching Russia 2018 would be the fillip Egypt could use as a springboard to stamp their mark on African football again. Doing well in the African Cup of Nations could serve as a confidence boost for the national team in the lead up to important World Cup qualifier matches 2017.
In the Cup of Nations, Egypt have a decent chance to get out of Group D. Though Ghana will provide a stern test, the Pharaohs will take great belief from their recent win against the Black Stars. In addition, Mali will provide tough opposition, as many in their squad playing in the top European leagues of Serie A, Premier League and Ligue 1. Uganda will show great spirit and determination but this is their first appearance in the competition since 1978.
Looking at Egypt’s squad, Mohamed Salah is undoubtedly their star player, whose creativity and goalscoring threat has provided a bright spark for Roma in Serie A. The Pharaohs will be boosted by his return to fitness from an ankle injury, but much of their fortunes will rest on whether Salah can replicate his club form for Egypt. Far too often, an African player performed well for their club in a European league but failed to do so for their country at an international tournament.
If Salah is the star of the team then Ramadan Sobhi could provide the excitement factor for the Pharaohs. The 19-year-old has played just seven league games since moving to Stoke in the summer but has great potential – hence why in Egypt he is dubbed the next Mohamed Aboutrika. If given game time, Sobhi will have the chance to live up to the mantle and become Egypt’s new golden boy.
After much hardship, Egyptian football faces a prosperous rebirth from the ashes of a once bleak sunset. It’s up to them to seize their opportunity and consign the horrors of the recent past to history.
By Yousef Teclab. Follow @yousef738