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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Corruption Investigation Signals Restructuring of Egyptian Soccer

Egyptian state prosecutor Abdul Mejid Mahmoud is investigating corruption charges against senior figures in Egyptian soccer, including Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher, according to soccer officials and analysts as well as Egyptian media reports.

Some analysts and sources close to the prosecutor said that Mahmoud is likely to file formal charges related to the financial management of those under investigation.

The sources said the officials under investigation also included Egyptian national team goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman and National Sport Council Chairman Hassan Mohamed Ezzat Sakr, whose portfolio includes soccer.

Zaher, Soliman and Saqr did not respond to requests for comment.

“It is my understanding that an investigation has been opened into highly placed officials of Egyptian soccer and the financial flows associated with them,” said Mark Wotte, head coach-manager at Egyptian Premier League club Ismailia SC, who refrained from identifying specific officials.

Yasser Thabat, author of Soccer Wars, an Arabic-language book on Egyptian soccer, said the “prosecutor is expected to indict” Zaher and other officials in the near future.

Egyptian newspaper Al Dostor quoted officials in the prosecutor’s office as denying that they had seized funds of Al Ahly SC executives Hassan Hamdy, the chairman of Egypt’s most popular club, who also reportedly heads the advertising department of the government-owned Al Ahram publishing house as well as the EFA’s sponsorship committee, and the club’s deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Khateeb.

The officials said neither executive had as yet been questioned by the prosecutor’s office. They said military police had seized three boxes of documents that Hamdy and Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor’s office when they were confronted by publishing house employees who suspected that the boxes contained documents that would prove the two men’s involvement in corruption.

The investigations are part of an anti-corruption campaign being waged by Egypt’s military rulers in response to the demands of the protesters who earlier this month forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. The military has detained a number of Mubarak’s senior officials and a prominent businessman on charges of corruption. It has promised to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.

The investigations, coupled with demands by FIFA, are likely to spark a major restructuring of Egyptian soccer that goes far beyond a change of faces at the top.

It could mean replacing crowned but controversial Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata and is certain to involve greater transparency, financial austerity, caps on transfer pricing and players’ salaries and major changes in the legal status and ownership of clubs

Criticism of Shehata is mounting because of Egypt’s poor performance in the most recent African championship matches in the period preceding the turmoil, his failure to inject fresh blood into the national team and his close ties with the Mubarak family and public support for the president in the days leading up to the president’s ousting.

Shehata’s tenure, analysts say, depends on how Egypt performs in its upcoming, crucial match against South Africa. Egypt is asking the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to postpone by three months the match scheduled for March 24 to allow its national team to get back in shape after more than a month of inactivity.

The EFA in late January suspended indefinitely all professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for Mubarak’s opponents. The EFA is waiting for military approval for the lifting of the suspension.

Cairo club Al Ahly SC star Mohamed Abou-Treika said the toppling of Mubarak would motivate Egypt’s national team to reach next year’s African Cup of Nations finals in Guinea and Equatorial Guinea. “I know that people are worried over our chances of qualifying for the Nations Cup but I’m not worried at all,” said Abou-Treika, who played a key role in Egypt’s 2006 and 2008 African triumphs.

In a further indication of the coming restructuring, the EFA on Sunday called after a meeting with Premier League clubs for a capping of transfer pricing and players’ salaries. The call was immediately embraced by Ismailia chairman Nasr Aboul-Hassan and the club’s ultras, organized fanatical soccer fans, who said they would boycott club matches in protest of players’ salaries.

The EFA call and the boycott is likely to stymie star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou’s negotiations with financially troubled Ismailia in which he is reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 a year in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day. “There will be a healthy levelling” of players’ salaries, Ismailia coach-manager Wotte said.

Responding to the demand for caps as well as the fact that few players and coaches participated actively in the anti-Mubarak protests, Premier League clubs announced unanimously that they were donating 25 per cent of the value of players’ contracts to the families of the 365 people killed in the uprising as well as the hundreds injured.

Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly and Al Zamalek SC are reportedly discussing a friendly match, the revenues of which would also be donated to the victims of the uprising.

The proposal is being fuelled by the fact that ultras of the two rivals worked side by side to contribute to the success of the anti-Mubarak revolt while the political dividing lines between the clubs’ managements was repeatedly evident in their attitudes towards proposals inspired by the Mubarak regime in a bid to create the impression that Egypt was returning to business as usual.

Zamalek board member Hassan Ibrahim
said over the weekend that he supported the protesters’ calls for change and an end to corruption despite his declarations in favour of Mubarak during the uprising.

The cooperation between the ultras and a possible friendly constitute a marked departure from what has been until now the world’s most violent derby. The government has insisted for years that derby matches between the two Cairo clubs matches are played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game.

Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plainclothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras may have in store, surrounded the stadium whenever the two teams met. Routes to and from stadiums were strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.

The donation of a portion of players’ contracts and the friendly are also a reaction to many Egyptians exhibiting, at least temporarily, less interest in the beautiful game as they focus on which direction their country takes in the wake of Mubarak’s fall and the need to maintain pressure on the military to ensure it leads the country towards democracy.

If the Mubarak regime employed soccer to divert public attention from the country’s political and economic issues, the public now is downgrading the importance of the game to ensure that there is no diversion. “People no longer want to be diverted,” Thabat said.

That is likely to have consequences, certainly in the short term, for club finances already hit by the suspension of matches and uncertainty over continued government support.

Ismailia is a case on point. Nominally managed by the governorate of the port city of Ismailia, Ismailia received some government funding, but generated already prior to the revolt much of its revenue from television rights, ticket sales and primarily the buying and selling of players, Wotte said.

He said Ismailia also received some sponsorship fund through advertisement in Al Ahram, but with the troubled head of Al Ahly, Hassan Hamdy, chairing the EFA’s sponsorship committee “we didn’t get very much.”

Diminished government funding and popular demand for greater transparency reinforces FIFA’s insistence that Egyptian clubs reduce government involvement, become incorporated companies or associations and move towards private ownership and possible listing on the Egyptian stock exchange. At least half of the Premier League’s teams are owned by the government or the military.

“Based on a decision of the FIFA Congress all statutes of the 208 member associations have been or are reviewed and aligned to the FIFA statutes. The EFA is currently in process of revising its statutes accordingly,” FIFA said in an emailed statement.

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