Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Blame game in full swing over Mohamed Salah and Egypt's Africa Cup of Nations failure with investigations pending

Anger both politically and from fans over second round exit from the competition

The chairman and board members of the Egyptian Football Federation had no intention of resigning following the country's surprise exit from the second round of the Africa Cup of Nations, but were persuaded to do so under government pressure, sources have revealed.

Egyptian authorities acted quickly to try and assuage public anger over Egypt's exit from the 24-nation tournament.

It was a task that took added urgency because Saturday's 1-0 defeat to South Africa came just one day after the government hiked petrol and cooking gas prices by 22 per cent, the latest phase of an ambitious government plan to overhaul the economy but which fed popular discontent over soaring prices.

Officials and insiders said Youth and Sports Minister Ashraf Sobhy summoned federation chairman Hany Abo Rida for a meeting shortly after the final whistle at the Cairo International Stadium where he was recommended to step down along with his board.

Abo Rida, known to enjoy close relations with the government, initially declined, but succumbed in the end, the officials and insiders said. He put out a brief statement late on Saturday announcing his resignation and calling on board members to follow suit.

Most of them did, except for at least two who reportedly resisted, arguing that they had nothing to do with the Africa Cup campaign, but they too stepped down in the small hours of Sunday morning.

Abo Rida also fired Mexican coach Javier Aguirre, who took the job less than a year ago with promises of discipline and attacking football.

The initial reluctance by Abo Rida and board members to resign harkened back to the federation's refusal to step down last year after Egypt marked its first appearance in the World Cup in 28 years with a dismal campaign that saw them lose all three of their group games.

Pressure mounted on the federation then to step down after leaks of near total collapse of discipline in the squad's camp, but Abo Rida and board members resisted and continued business as usual.

Egypt's Mohamed Salah applauds fans at the end of the African Cup of Nations round of 16 soccer match between Egypt and South Africa in Cairo International stadium in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 6, 2019. South Africa won 1-0. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Egypt's Mohamed Salah applauds fans at the end of the African Cup of Nations round of 16 soccer match between Egypt and South Africa in Cairo International stadium in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 6, 2019. South Africa won 1-0. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Judicial and security officials said that an investigation by the country's top anti-graft agency was already underway, looking into corruption linked to the tournament as well as past practices by the federation.

Lawmakers are demanding a separate probe on the financial dealings of federation members.

One legislator, Mohammed Salim, said hosting the tournament came at a high price, with some of the spending came from funds earmarked for the upgrade and running of youth and sports centres across the country of 100 million.

"No one will be shielded from what is coming in the way of questioning and possible prosecution," said one insider who, like others along with the officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This will not end with a slap on someone's wrist. There is a serious political will to eradicate corruption in the sport."

Some media reports on Tuesday spoke of a government "recommendation" that members of the federation do not run again for the job of chairman or board member when elections are held next year.

If confirmed, that would suggest that authorities don't wish to see any member of the federation involved again in football.

Already, at least two official complaints have been lodged by lawyers with the country's chief prosecutor, demanding that his office investigates the federation for mismanagement and corruption.

Among the allegations swirling around the federation is the black market sale by federation members of premier seats for the four matches Egypt played in the tournament before they were knocked out.

Another one is Aguirre's relatively high salary - reportedly €108,000 a month and the highest of any coach in the tournament.

The Mexican's selection of the 23-man squad will also come under scrutiny since his agent, Egyptian Mamdouh Eid, also represents 14 members of the team, according to the insiders, some of whom have had first hand knowledge of behind-the-scenes deliberations within the national team and its officials.

"Some of those not selected for the squad were left out because they did not want Eid to represent them," said one of the anonymous insiders.

Ziad Bahaa El-Deen, a senior economist and former deputy prime minister, wrote on Tuesday in the Al Shorouk newspaper that the probes and the complaints against the federation may all come to nothing, saying similar reactions happened in the past.

Alluding to the aftermath of past failures by Egypt, he wrote: "Conditions remain unchanged until a new scandal comes along and the search to find players, team officials and coaches to use as scapegoats begins so public opinion is quiet again and business is back to usual."

The insiders said investigators were likely also to look into the expulsion and later reinstatement of midfielder Amr Warda over allegations of sexual harassment.

His reinstatement followed a players' revolt led by Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, whose defence of his teammate on social media was a catalyst for a tidal wave of criticism in which he was accused of hypocrisy and insensitivity toward victims of harassment.

The loss to South Africa has proved hard to take for Egypt. AP Photo
The loss to South Africa has proved hard to take for Egypt. AP Photo

"The Warda episode distracted and divided the squad," said another insider. "Significantly, it showed the players to be more powerful than the federation on a sensitive issue."

Salah, in an apparent bid to atone for his image, thanked fans in a tweet posted on Monday for their support and promised that he and other team members will learn from the mistakes made during the tournament, but his words appeared to fall on deaf ears, unleashing more criticism.

Some of that questioned the striker's on-pitch commitment and fighting spirit.

Prominent political author Ammar Ali Hassan responded to Salah's tweet with scathing irony.

"You have a chance now to stay home and watch how Algeria's Riyad Mahrez fights for his national team like a player who has just started his career and wants to prove himself."

Updated: July 9, 2019 06:29 PM

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