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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Egyptian Military Under Pressure to Lift Ban on Soccer Matches

Egypt's ruling military is under increasing pressure to lift the one month-old suspension of the country's professional league matches following Sunday's African championship defeat of Kenya's Ulinzi Stars by storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, the first soccer match to be played in Egypt since mass anti-government protests erupted in late January.

Both teams wore black armbands during the match to honor the 365 people killed in the protests that last month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Spectators on their best performance in Cairo's 22,000-seat Military Academy Stadium sang nationalistic songs and waved patriotic banners.

The match was as crucial for Egypt as it was for Zamalek, which took it to the last-32 stage of the African Champions League. The military was widely seen to be waiting to see whether the match would take place without incidents before responding to a request more than a week ago by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to be allowed to lift the suspension on professional matches.

The suspension was initially introduced to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for anti-Mubarak protests. The military, which took over from Mubarak pledging to lead Egypt to democracy within six months, now fears that the opposition may use matches as a rallying point for demonstrations to pressure the armed forces to keep its promise. The lack of incidents in Sunday's match makes it more difficult for the military to uphold the suspension.

Tunisia however underlined the political sensitivity of soccer in the Middle East and North Africa by postponing on Monday the planned restart of professional league matches for security reasons. Tunisia suspended professional matches after the eruption of mass protests in December that forced the resignation in January of Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali.

Some analysts believe the Egyptian military has refrained from lifting the suspension to allow time for a shake-up of the country's top soccer management. Several senior soccer managers including the head of the EFA, Samir Zaher, are reportedly under investigation on corruption-related issues.

Supporters in Alexandria, forced the resignations of four board members of Ittihad al-Skanderya, the port city's Premier League team, because of its dismal performance.

Fans are also demanding the resignations of national coach Hassan Shehata and two board members of Zamalek because of their public support for Mubarak while their supporters played a key role in the demonstrations that forced the president's departures.

The calls have prompted on Monday Zamalek board member Hossam Hassan to take denials by Shehata, his brother and fellow Zamalek board member Ibrahim Hassan and himself a step further. The three have repeatedly defended themselves saying that they supported the goals of the protesters but wanted Mubarak to be treated with dignity.

Hossam on Monday said that he and his brothers had been victims of the Mubarak regime. "Me and my brother Ibrahim suffered from unfairness more than anyone, thanks to the previous system. We are no symbols of corruption. We didn't benefit from the regime... We were honored everywhere around the world, except in our country," Hossam said.

The suspension of matches could prompt some players and coaches, already frustrated by the prolonged suspension, to reconsider their commitment to Egypt. Manuel Jose Da Silva, the Portuguese coach of crowned Cairo club and Zamalek arch rival Al Ahly SC, has denied that he was in negotiations with Sporting Lisbon.

"I am engaged with Ahly until the end of my contract, which runs for another season. All reports about negotiations between me and Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon, are not true," the 64-year old was quoted as saying by Al Ahly's official website.

Jose cautioned, however, that resuming professional league matches to ensure that clubs would be able to continue paying their players and coaches.

Jose's remarks came as the EFA said on its website that it would look at capping the salaries of coaches as part of a series of austerity measures to cope with the financial impact of the political turmoil wracking Egypt. The EFA said it was looking at imposing a new budgetary system for coaches in accordance with the association's resources in the meantime'.

The EFA last month called for a capping of transfer prices and players' salaries, but did not quantify possible ceilings.

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