How Egypt’s Pharaohs arose from the abyss

How Egypt’s Pharaohs arose from the abyss

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.

Read  |  The chaotic world of Al Ahly and their Ahlawy ultras

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.