Problems on hold
Football in Egypt enjoys a sweeping popularity that dwarfs before it all other sports. Yet that single-minded obsession with football places Egyptians at the losing end; they pay a heavy price in frustration and disappointment as they are time and again let down by their footballers in local and international matches. At the other end of the spectrum, various individual and team sports fail to gain even a portion of the popularity football has in Egypt, getting scarce official attention or media notice. The contrast is stark when footballers lose to rival teams, yet are rewarded; whereas players of other sports excel and win, only to be brushed off with minimal official honour and media coverage, and pitiful financial reward.
Not so long ago, Egypt’s national football team, playing on its turf and among its fans, suffered a disgraceful loss in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) that was held in Egypt last June/July. Egyptians had held high hopes their team would win the Africa Cup and thereby set an African record of an eighth win. But that was not to be. The disgraceful loss was not much of a surprise since football critics had already expressed concern at the poor performance of the Egyptian team during the first matches played and won. Some said the players lacked the sense of patriotism and enthusiasm normal to national teams. Egypt lost the cup, and what then? It was as though it counted for nothing; all the players went back to the local or international clubs in which they play; that was all. The foreign coach of the team was, as always, taken to account; his contract with the national team was terminated. The Football League board was dismissed and, as usual, accused of corruption. It was a deplorably all too familiar scenario.
Hardly a couple of weeks later, another national team made it up for Egyptians through an outstanding win: The Junior Handball National Team played with zeal, strength, and admirable team spirit in the Men’s Junior World Handball Championship in Spain, and won the bronze medal. The players impressed everyone including sports critics and coaches of rival teams. The Junior Handball National Team was warmly and eagerly received upon its return home, as one of the best three in the world. However, the contrast with the losing football team stood out flagrantly, in terms of care, attention, funding, and financial reward to players. On all fronts, the winner handballers received a pitiful fraction of what was lavished upon the loser footballers.
Many thoughts turn in my head on this issue; I would care to share them with my readers. Given that those in charge of football are already reconsidering its administration and coaches, they should also take a firm stand against pampering and corrupting the players, that is if we are serious about reforming football and the Egyptian national team. The performance of the team reveals that its members have lost spirit, and are now only after financial gain. If needs be, let us have a new team that excludes the current professionals and hires instead some of the many young players who train in clubs and who boast outstanding potential. My hope is to go back to the good old days of football when it was a sport to enjoy, a good form of recreation and sports spirit, before it turned into hard ‘business’. Might we have to resort to a military administration in order to achieve discipline, commitment, dedication, high performance and fine ethics?
After al-Ahly Club won the Egyptian League’s Shield, triumphing over its archrival Zamalek Club in what the media described as the “peak match”, I found myself wondering what ‘peak’ the media was talking about; I failed to find an answer. There was no peak performance, no peak spirit, no peak ethics, no peak anything of value. Yet al-Ahly players were given huge rewards for having won. The real shock for me, however, was that Mahmoud al-Khatib, President of al-Ahly Club, a seasoned footballer in the good old days when sports ethics counted, approved a suggestion to renege on penalties that had been imposed on the football team because of its shameful defeat by the South African Sun Downs, 5 clean in the quarter-finals of the African Champions League earlier this year. Back then it was decided to deprive the players of EGP20 million in rewards pledged had they won, which they did not. But when they won the Egyptian League’s Shield, it was decided to go back on the penalty and give them the EGP20 million, meaning that each player pocketed a whopping EGP650,000. Then we talk about educational, sports, ethical and patriotic values in football?
Would it not have been more fitting of al-Khatib, the prudent administrator and star player of old, who always gave of himself to Egyptian and al-Ahly football, to order the EGP20 million to the Junior Handball Team? Al-Ahly team had been penalised for disgraceful performance and a humiliating loss; according to what ethical measure did al-Khatib lift the penalty? It was not as though the players went empty-handed, they had received generous rewards for winning the League. Directing the EGP20 million to honour the Handball Team would have held great educational, sports and patriotic significance. But sadly, this did not happen. Footballers remain pampered and corrupt, while players of other sports such as the medal-winning handball team remain victims of discrimination, injustice and frustration.
11 August 2019