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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Anti-Government Protests Reinforce Cleavages in Egyptian Soccer

A stalemate between anti-government protesters and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that has paralyzed the North African country for the past two weeks is deepening political and social cleavages in Egyptian soccer and positioning the country’s crowned national team in the camp of Mubarak supporters.

The cleavages are evident in varying responses to the crisis by Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC as well as other Egyptian clubs and pro-government statements by the national team’s management at a time that some players and fans have joined the protests seeking to end Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Al Ahly and Zamalek ultras, fanatical soccer fans, have played a key role in the protests, providing a degree of organizational and street battle experience that other opposition groups lacked.

Differences between Al Ahly and Zamalek that go back a century and reflect social, political and economic fault lines in Egyptian society have been reflected in the two teams’ public posture ever since the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) indefinitely cancelled premier league matches almost two weeks ago.

Both teams as well as the Egyptian national squad worry that the cancellation and a halt to training ordered by the Egyptian military will affect their performance in domestic and international competitions.

Egypt’s political stalemate has erased any middle ground in the country. As a result, in a tug of war between protesters remaining steadfast until Mubarak departs and the government seeking to establish a semblance of normalcy, soccer club attitudes towards the ban on training effectively amount to political statements.

In contrast, to Zamalek, a club founded by British colonial administrators and their Egyptian associates that still in many ways is identified with the upper classes, Al Ahly, the heart of the anti-colonial opposition and with an estimated 50 million supporters the more popular club, has refrained from resuming training until the ban is lifted. To achieve that, Al Ahly is urging the EFA to resume premier league matches.

Al Ahly expects its Portuguese coach Manuel Jose to return to Cairo with his staff on Wednesday. Jose and his colleagues left Egypt at the outset of the turmoil.

Contradicting Al Ahly and Zamalek’s pressure on the EFA to lift the suspension of premier league games, a number other Egyptian coaches argue that matches should not be resolved until the protests have ended.

“The players are exhausted as they have all been awake all nights guarding their houses over the past few days. My foreign players are still very anxious as their embassies asked them to leave Egypt due to the current situation,” said Alexandria club Ittihad coach Mohamed Amer.

“Above all we need people back in the stands because there is no reason to hold a competition without supporters who are distracted by this unrest,” Amer added.

The EFA is expected to discuss a lifting of the suspension before the end of this week.

Zamalek on Sunday said it had been maintaining a rigorous training schedule despite the ban. The club’s public statement was made on the same day that the government sought to create a perception of normalcy with the brief opening in Cairo of some banks for the first time in more than a week and the return to work of government employees.

The statement by Zamalek board member Hassan Ibrahim contrasted starkly with the participation in the anti-government protests by its coach Hossam Hassan as well as striker Ahmed Hossam 'Mido' and many of the clubs' fans.

Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata, who has made religion as important a criterion as soccer skill, for admission to the country’s squad, similarly has come out publicly in support of Mubarak.

"I hope that Mubarak can remain in his post until September's elections. This is essential for Egypt's stability," Shehata.
Mubarak, in the wake of the protests has agreed not to stand for re-election in September but refuses to bow to demands that he resign immediately.

Shehata and assistant national coach Hamada Sedki couched their statements in terms of the effect the crisis is having on Egyptian soccer.

In a rare acknowledgement in Egyptian government media of the role of soccer fans in the protests, Sedki and Al Alhram noted that the country’s soccer fans were more interested in Egypt’s political match being played out on Cairo’s Tahrir Square where thousands of protesters have been camping out for the past two weeks in support of their demand for Mubarak’s immediate departure than in upcoming African Cup of Nations games.

“Football fanatics hardly seem interested in following the latest about their beloved teams, let alone ordinary supporters who were busy protecting their homes after looters rampaged through the country immediately following the sudden withdrawal of police forces,” Al Ahram noted.

"Security comes before anything. It is the most important thing in life. I just hope people sleep safely at night. I hope everything will be better in Egypt in the coming period," Sedki said.

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