After winning the last three Cup of Nations tournaments, an unprecedented feat in the event’s 55-year history, Egypt’s absence from this year’s finals is not as shocking as it appears. From Cairo, Inas Mazhar explains why.
The continent’s football festival will certainly miss the absence of its most dominant team over the last decade. But the flagging fortunes of the Pharaohs are the last thing bothering most Egyptians.
An unbridled passion for the better part of the country’s 85 million people, football had been a convenient tool to distract normally curious minds from questioning the economic, social, and political direction of Egypt, when former President Hosni Mubarak was at the helm.
But the consequences of last year’s popular uprising, which unexpectedly swept Mubarak out of the presidential palace, has meant that far more important issues other than international football results, have taken centre-stage.
After leading Egypt to its last three African titles, erstwhile manager Hassan Shehata, as well as the players responsible for the feat, earned their place as legends in the hearts of Egyptians.
But they quickly turned into villains when Shehata and some players refused to take an active role in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s government.
Regarding their stance as an act of betrayal, the fans clearly expressed their displeasure from the terraces during the final stages of the 2012 Nations Cup qualifying series, which hardly gave them the support required to secure the needed points during the final round of home matches.
Whilst the turbulent political atmosphere in Egypt ensured the team lacked adequate training facilities and the proper environment within which to prepare, many experts believe the team built by Shehata had simply completed its natural cycle of success.
“The team had won three Nation Cup titles in a row, a record. They did not think it was that important to win a fourth,” opined Alaa Abdel Ghani, a well-known critic, who writes for the Al-Ahram weekly newspaper.
“Shehata had no motivation and could not motivate his players. He should have left after winning the trophy for the third time. He did not, and the Egyptian FA could not fire him after all he had achieved,” Ghani continued.
“The team was overconfident and not prepared from the start. The results against Sierra Leone in Cairo (1-1) and the 1-0 loss to Niger in Niamey [both games were played before the 2011 revolution started] effectively sealed their fate,” Abdel-Ghani added.
Egypt’s dominance of the Nations Cup in recent years also gave the players a sense of superiority that allowed complacency to set in, losing them their competitive edge.
And with the political revolution sweeping away the presidential cover of protection on which the team relied, Egyptian football has been forced to chart an uncertain course. Shehata left the national team last June to take charge of club side Zamalek.
Ahmed Hassan, captain of the Pharaohs, confesses that his colleagues were unsettled by the fact that the public, smarting from their attitude during last year’s uprising, had turned against them.
Missing out on the 2012 National Cup tournament denied Hassan the chance to play in a record eight Nations Cup competitions. “The players were always nervous and this had a direct impact on our performance,” Hassan confesses.
Defender Hossam Ghaly, who also captains Al Ahly, feels he and his colleagues were made scapegoats for the sins of the Mubarak government.
“We are the national football team and not the National Democratic Party [the political organ of the deposed Mubarak]. I cannot understand why we were treated with such anger by the public,” says Ghaly.
Selecting a new national coach for the Pharaohs took months and the final decision to opt for American Bob Bradley, who took his homeland to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, certainly ruffled a few feathers.
Many questioned why a coach with a much bigger international reputation was not recruited. “We are aware that most Egyptians only know him from the 2009 Confederations Cup, where the USA beat Egypt. But he has a good CV that made us select him,” says Samir Zaher, the Egyptian FA president.
Informed sources, however, claim the American was selected because he was the only one willing, amongst the three shortlisted coaches, to accept the terms on offer: a three-year contract, with a 30,000 euro monthly net salary.
Many wondered why Bradley decided to take on the job, in the midst of the uncertain political climate in the country.
But Bradley explained that before coming to Egypt, he consulted the relevant authorities and had no problems moving there.
“I spoke to those who lived and are still living in Cairo and they said it’s one of the best places to be. Egypt is a historical country and I’m fond of it, so I didn’t hesitate when I received the offer,” says the American.
Although Bradley started officially in October, he did not take charge of Egypt’s final two games in the 2012 qualifying series. Hany Ramzy, the former national captain, acted in the interim.
“Rebuilding the team is the priority,” Bradley says. “I’m aware that at this stage, Egyptians are eyeing the World Cup of 2014, so it is also my main task. I will not depend on particular players and I don’t care whether they are stars or not. All I want is players who can play good quality football and be at their peak during matches. Following the national domestic competition will help me select the
Egypt’s friendly against five-time world champions Brazil in November was the first test for Bradley and the 2-0 loss in Cairo did him no favours.
On the domestic front, staging the national championship has been a huge challenge. Constant demonstrations at matches, where the fans stage political protests, with insufficient security to calm the situation, led to the delay of the current national championship till October. And things have hardly improved since then.
Hardcore fans from Ahly and Zamalek, running into tens of thousands, who played a vital role in the pro-democracy demonstrations at Tahrir Square, have had regular clashes with the police, which have led to several deaths and serious injuries.
The embattled FA claim they have done all they can to stem the tide of violence. They have imposed heavy fines on clubs whose fans are found guilty of these acts.
But it has hardly served as a deterrent, as the intensity of fan fury has only increased. Several fans are currently in custody and facing criminal trials.
An attempt to stage games behind closed doors failed, as the fans still went to the grounds and forced their way in.
Many of the clubs are facing bankruptcy as a result of the severe disruption to the league over the last year and the FA has been struggling to maintain its lucrative relationship with sponsors.
“There are calls to cancel the league competition this season, but this will have negative effects,” says Zaher. “The clubs will certainly go into bankruptcy, because the players will not train or play but they will insist on getting their monthly wages, even if the season is cancelled. And sponsors will certainly not honour their contracts if there is no competition.”
It is a dire situation that is not lost on the country’s football leadership.
“We have run out of ideas,” Zaher admits. “We have been meeting with the leaders of the fans [to stem the violence]. We don’t know what they need. The police, on the other hand, are retaliating, so we are also talking to them in the hope that order can be restored. Honestly, the future of Egyptian football is at stake.”
Two international sports events – the African qualifying event for the 2012 Olympic football tournament, as well the World Junior Squash Championship, which the country was supposed to stage, were moved to new venues for safety reasons.
These are the circumstances under which Bob Bradley is expected to ensure that Egypt qualifies for the 2013 Nations Cup and ends a 24-year World Cup absence by earning a ticket to the 2014 finals in Brazil.
Drawn in a second-round group with the Comoros, Guinea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Egypt’s progress to the latter stages of the World Cup qualifying series ought to be a piece of cake.
But the disappointing memories of the last few years are a clear warning that it will be anything but easy.