The man at the epicentre of Egyptian football
Samir Zaher, the man who brought Bob Bradley to Egypt, is all apologies after showing up more than an hour late for an interview.
He has been very busy, he explains, campaigning for Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's final prime minister and one of the finalists in last week's run-off in Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential election.
These days, it is his prize recruit, the American coach Bradley, who commands the sports headlines in Egypt with the national football team in the midst of qualification for the 2014 World Cup and 2013 African Cup of Nations.
But in an Egypt, where sport and politics have long been intertwined, the three terms and 10 years Zaher served as chairman of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) continue to make him a deeply polarising figure.
On a recent afternoon a group of protesters camped out at Tahrir Square had a discussion about the national team's upcoming World Cup qualifier against Guinea. The conversation turned, unprompted, to the EFA's former chairman.
"Samir Zaher is the most corrupt person to ever work in the football federation," offered one, who identified himself as Abu Shahid.
For many Egyptians, and particularly the hard-core supporters of Egypt's professional clubs known as Ultras, Zaher is the foremost symbol of the corruption and cronyism that permeated Egyptian sport under the Mubarak regime.
Zaher was first appointed to the EFA's board of directors in 1992 before rising to chairman in 1996. He returned to the post after a six-year hiatus, in 2005. In that period, he also served in parliament as a member of the ruling National Democratic Party.
"He was a big figure. He was soccer," said James Dorsey, an academic and author of the popular football blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer".
In the final six years of Mubarak's rule, the ageing dictator increasingly focused on neutralising militant fan groups while exploiting football as a prop to polish his image. "Zaher was the top henchman," Dorsey said. "It was his job … to control that threat and to maximise the opportunity."
In Zaher's sparsely decorated sixth-floor office in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis, where he heads a trading company, a lone poster hangs on the wall opposite his desk. It features an image of Zaher presenting Mubarak with what appears to be a cup winner's medal superimposed over a photo of Egypt's victorious 2008 African Cup of Nations squad.
In the foreground, a beaming Mubarak holds the trophy, flanked by Hassan Shehata, the coach at the time, and the captain Ahmed Hassan. Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, appear off to the sides.
As EFA chairman, Zaher concerned himself with every detail pertaining to the national team.
"I am the one responsible for the first team. I go with them in the hotel. I stay in the hotel. I travel with them. I am responsible about everything," he says.
The team's success under his stewardship convinced Zaher of his indispensability. Four of Egypt's record seven African Cup of Nations championships came while he was the chairman, including three consecutive, in 2006, 2008, and 2010.
"I never left anyone to be near the first team except me because the results said so," he says.
His latest run as EFA chairman came to an ignominious end in February when 74 people died in a riot at a league match in the coastal city of Port Said.
The next day, Kamal Al Ganzouri, the prime minister, dismissed Zaher and the rest of the board. After Fifa, world football's governing body, objected to the political interference in the sport, the board announced its resignation a few days later.
Despite reports at the time that Zaher planned to contest his dismissal to Fifa, he insists that he never had any intention of doing so.
"To start with, Fifa, they told us they were backing us, but I don't know what happened after this," he says. "I didn't want to make a conflict between me and the people here in Egypt because it was very hard days."
He had been through the process before. He was fired by Ganzouri during his first stint as prime minister, in 1999, following a stadium incident between the Cairo rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek. "People here in Egypt got used to if there is a drop in football, the responsible people are out. It's not the first time," Zaher said.
Since then, he has kept a low profile, rarely speaking to the media. He takes comfort in his record as the EFA's most accomplished federation chairman.
"I made everything in football: money, results. It was super results. The only thing I did not do is to go to the World Cup," he says.
It was for that reason that he brought in Bradley in September to succeed Shehata, the longtime coach. Shehata coached each of the three successive African Cup victories but failed to lead Egypt to the biggest competition.
Zaher, who had been impressed by Bradley since his US team thrashed Egypt 3-0 in the 2009 Confederations Cup, spearheaded the American's recruitment, hosting him on two visits last summer and advocating for his appointment before the board.
"I saw that this guy, he can do something in Egypt," Zaher says. "He can make something with the Egyptian team. And before leaving the federation, really, I give him all the authorities he wants. Everything."
So far, the plan is on track after victories over Mozambique and Guinea earlier this month to open World Cup qualifying, although Egypt suffered a setback last week in a shock 3-2 home loss to Central African Republic in an African Cup qualifier.
Zaher is unapologetic about his close ties to the former regime. He gestures towards a photograph of Mubarak with the winning 1998 African Cup side. "That's Hosni Mubarak, eh? You can go look, if you like," he says.
But he rejects the suggestion that he is a crony of the former president.
"If I didn't have good results and make good results and have four times cup, will Mubarak or any one of these people ask about me?"
Regarding Mubarak and his sons, who were frequently accused of using football to burnish their popularity, he responds, "They came to the football team, not to me. They came to the results."
Though out of the limelight, for now, the 68-year-old Zaher doesn't intend to drift serenely into his golden years. Besides his day job and work on the Shafiq campaign, he says he maintains close contact with Bradley and the national team staff.
"I'm very near for all these guys. I get in touch with them. 'How are you doing? Come on. We want to beat Mozambique.' Before leaving [to play Mozambique in the first World Cup qualifier], I gave them a talk, you know?"
He also is trying to reintroduce himself to the Egyptian public. He hired a private production company to make a documentary about his life, dating back to his schoolboy days at the prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria.
The film, he says, is "what is not said or seen from my life. Because my life, everyone knows."
The public-relations play also raises an obvious question: does Zaher hope to chair the EFA once again? Under current rules, he would next be eligible to run for the post in four years.
At a time when Egypt's revolutionaries are feverishly fretting a wholesale reconstitution of the old order after the military's recent grab for power, Zaher's restoration to his former perch would surprise few.
"I don't think so," he replies at first. But a few minutes later, he is openly musing about the possibility, and his answer changes to a casual "maybe".
A victory for his man Shafiq, when the election results are announced, would pave the most obvious path for a return to the limelight.
For now, though, he can only sit and watch, hoping that the American manning the sideline can help vindicate, if not his political legacy, than at least his sporting one.
"In the end they are going to say that Samir brought him," he says. "I'm not still there. But it is like this."
Updated: June 23, 2012 04:00 AM