x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Even after losing, Egyptians are loath to criticise their football

The magnitude of a 3-0 loss to the United States sparks an earnest sociopolitical conversation about what went wrong and why.

CAIRO // Ever since the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German soldiers broke from fighting to play a football friendly between the trenches, commentators have made much about the power of international sport to transcend political boundaries. But when the Egyptian and US football teams met on Sunday night in South Africa, beyond the newly dug trenches of Barack Obama's more moderate Middle Eastern diplomacy, talk of politics was, for the most part, warming the bench.

But the magnitude of a 3-0 loss to the United States - a country in which football is not popular and whose players were widely seen here as dilettantes - along with controversial allegations of bad behaviour among Egyptian players off the pitch, has sparked an earnest sociopolitical conversation about what went wrong and why. The commission for youth and sports affairs in the People's Assembly called this week for an ad hoc parliamentary hearing - despite parliament's already having adjourned for the summer - to examine both why Egypt lost to the US and to investigate whether there is truth behind allegations that players hired prostitutes during the Confederation Cup games in South Africa.

That events on the football pitch would reach the halls of parliament is not surprising. "Football is an area in which Egyptians are allowed to express their opinions freely, whether in the playgrounds, in the streets or even the media," wrote Alaa Aswany, an Egyptian author and a critic of the Egyptian government, in the newspaper Al Sharouq on Tuesday. "The demonstrations of the football supporters are never attacked by the police. On the contrary, the police protect them. This is completely contrary to what happens in political life in Egypt.

"Egyptians have no sense of their own participation in the issues of this country. The government brings about any change, excludes the people and forges the elections." But if the average Egyptian feels a sense of patriotism while watching his national team, criticising footballers remains a step too far. Amr Adib, a popular late night talk-show host, discovered that raw nerve this week. When Adib used part of his show Al Qahirah Al Yawm to blast the Egyptian players over their loss and the scandal, players called in to the show, treating viewers to a televised shouting match between Adib and Hassan Shehata, Egypt's coach.

On Thursday night, after Egypt's surprising 1-0 victory over Italy, a top contender, five Egyptian players returned to their hotel rooms to discover US$2,400 (Dh8,800) missing from their luggage. As police began to investigate the crime, several South African newspapers reported that the Egyptian team had been hustled by prostitutes. Despite South African law enforcement officials' claims the theft showed no signs of forced entry and that closed circuit cameras in the hotel caught scantily clad women circulating in the corridors, anecdotal evidence reveals that Egyptians have sided with the players.

In the middle-class Cairo neighbourhood of Agouza, many sided with the players and said the allegations were not to be believed. "All of our players are professionals," said Hamad Essam, 23, while smoking a shisha. Others said the media's searing criticism of Egypt's beloved team was simply a reaction from disappointed fans. Although the loss against the United States was painful, Mr Mustafa said, it was mitigated by the recent diplomatic overtures of Mr Obama, the US president, who only two weeks before the game delivered a historic address to the Muslim world from Egypt's capital.

"It would have been psychologically more painful had this happened under [the former US president George W] Bush," Mr Mustafa said. "But under Obama, it was easier to accept the loss." But just as history is written by the victors, the history of sport has a tendency to follow the political whims of its champions. Whether or not Egyptians see a political tint in their country's loss to the divisive superpower has more to do with the outcome of the game than with the president in power, said Hassan al Mostakawi, a sports writer for Al Sharouq.

"It was a football game and we lost it. That's all. Frankly, the Americans played well. They were faster," al Mostakawi said. "However, I'm certain that if we had beaten the States, the newspapers would have said 'Egypt was victorious over America' in a way that would have implied a military victory. "Football is just an acceptable equivalent to war. Human beings appreciate effectiveness, strength and struggle. It's a race against time. All these are beautiful things."

mbradley@thenational.ae