x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Armageddon? It can wait until the match is over

Soccer is a religion in Egypt. Plans will be postponed, traffic redirected and work left undone if the Egyptian team is playing.

Soccer is a religion in Egypt. Plans will be postponed, traffic redirected and work left undone if the Egyptian team is playing. I remember once having a flood in my apartment at such a time and the doorman refused to help until the match was over. There was no budging him - he wouldn't even raise his head to greet me when I dashed in asking for his help. Huddled over the small television set on a chair in his room, his big hazel eyes were fixed on the screen as though he were about to be given a life sentence.

"Ya ya ya, I'll be there after the match, can't move now," he said shooing me away. I had no choice. I went back to my wet flat and sat obediently until the game was over. Normally I remain quite oblivious to any soccer match in the city - until the traffic piles up and the honking starts, that is. Every time Egypt scores, drivers listening to the game on their car radios celebrate noisily by sounding their horns.

The atmosphere can be electric when a game is being played - especially an important one between the Al Ahly and Zamalek clubs. Al Ahly is the number one team on the African continent and the country's pride and joy, uniting Egyptians in their devotion to it. Even though I don't watch the game or pay much attention, the excitement on the street is contagious, especially if the home side wins, and it's hard not to be happy with all those car horns honking and the singing and shouting as drivers stick their heads out of car windows.

I went to watch the Egypt v Costa Rica Under-20 World Cup match this past week, and even though it was a bit of an anticlimax as Egypt lost, my friends and I had fun just watching the spectators. In downtown Cairo, by the stock exchange building - an area known as the Boursa - there are cafes with outdoor seating that are usually teeming with young people smoking shisha and drinking Turkish coffee, tea and juice, a popular meeting place where a lot of socialist, liberal thinkers and artists hang out. When there is a big game being played, the cafes pool resources and hook up their TVs outside, organising chairs and tables so people can enjoy the game and order drinks.

The men always take the match very seriously. There will always be one or two who get so emotionally involved they forget there are other people watching it with them. One man with thinning, curly hair, automatically stands up and curses the TV screen loudly every time a player on the Egyptian team misses a chance at goal. Obviously, he would have played far better had he been given the opportunity. Every time a goal looks likely, the crowd take a collective deep breath and the boys grab each other's T-shirts in anticipation. More cursing follows when a chance is missed.

With Egypt yet to score, as soon as Costa Rica get their second goal people throw their hands up in the air, curse, and start to walk away. It's all a stark difference from last year when Egypt won the Africa Cup. On that night, squares, schools, cafes, in fact anywhere a TV could be plugged in, suddenly became mini-stadiums bursting with excitable Egyptian fans. After victory was secured, the city didn't sleep. As I walked around my neighbourhood, cars were zipping by with horns blaring, McDonald's delivery boys were using the restaurant's trays as drums as they danced in front of their shop, and flares - actual gas flares - held out of car windows lit up the sky. There was gridlock as streets were blocked by celebrating men, women and children. Some were dancing on their cars, or on the backs of lorries with music blaring from boom boxes in one long party of happy, hysterical people. Cairo on steroids.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo