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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Emboldened Fans Rewrite the Politics of Egyptian Soccer

Egyptian soccer fans, emboldened by their key role in successful protests that deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office, are gunning for change in their country’s beautiful game in a display of a newly acquired sense of power that is rewriting the politics of country’s soccer.

The fans’ sense of entitlement and resolve to press for far-reaching soccer reform is reflective of Egypt’s post-revolution public mood. Protesters imbued with what people power can achieve continue to demonstrate despite their driving Mubarak from power in a bid to clean out remnants of his regime, ensure that Mubarak era officials are held accountable and press the country’s military rulers to fulfill their pledge to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.

That heady sense of success has brought together fans of arch rivals, who prior to Egypt’s popular revolt met only in fierce street battles; put storied clubs like Cairo’s Al Ahly SC with its century-old history of nationalist, populist politics on the defensive, transformed starred players and managers into apparently greedy individuals fighting for their privileges and targeted prominent soccer managers who aligned themselves with Mubarak during the protests.

The new mood among Egypt’s soccer fans is changing the relationship between the clubs and the country’s national team with their support base. It is likely to force significant changes in management as well as far-reaching reform at a time that senior soccer officials are being investigated for alleged corruption and clubs are struggling economically as a result of a ban on professional matches imposed in late January to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point, and diminished government support. At least half of Egypt’s 16 Premier League teams are owned by the government, the military and the police.

The change in mood is highlighted by the newly-found solidarity between supporters of Al Ahly and its arch rival Al Zamalek SC. The two clubs historically represent diametrically opposed political and social poles. The roots of their rivalry pre-date the popular revolt to when Britain ruled Egypt and soccer was regarded as the colonial power’s only popular cultural import and dictated their relations until Mubarak’s overthrow. On Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Al Ahly and Al Zamalek ultras, organized die-hard fanatical soccer fans, set aside their differences to bolster the opposition with their organizational and logistical know-how as well as their experience in street battles.

Founded in 1907 as Egypt’s first club for Egyptians only, Al Ahly, chaired by former prime minister and leader of the nationalist Wafd Party Saad Zaghloul, was the meeting place for opponents of Britain’s colonial rule. Its players still wear the red colors of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag. Zamalek, dressed in white was initially named Al Mohtalet or The Mix and then Farouk in honor of the than hated and later deposed Egyptian monarch. It was the club of the British imperial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class and some of its managers still long for a return to the monarchy.

No wonder that this heady brew produced the world’s most violent derby. The two clubs’ vicious rivalry on and off the pitch has caused death, destruction and in at least one case in the early 70s, the entire league to be cancelled. So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insisted that matches be 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, organized fanatical fans that played a key role in the toppling of Mubarak, may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.

The joining of forces of the two clubs’ ultras against the backdrop of this longstanding, historical animosity makes the fans a force that soccer officials cannot ignore. Their support is no longer unwavering or unconditional. “We had Ahly and Zamalek against one another, we don't have that any more…we're just people," said a participant in a recent Annual Arab Youth Summit at the Library of Alexandria, articulating a perception among many Egyptians of a new era of common interest in which deep-seated soccer rivalries no longer define relationships.

Fan support of an effort by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to introduce financial austerity to cope with the economic fallout of the toppling of Mubarak has put them at odds with their clubs and star players who are resisting calls for a capping of transfer prices and salaries for starred coaches and players. “You're asking for millions and you don’t care about the poverty of Egyptians,” read a an Al Ahly fan banner displayed last week when their club played a friendly match against Harras El-Hodoud, the Premier League squad of the Egyptian Border Guards. Calls for social justice, a phrase rarely heard in the past in Egyptian soccer, now dominate Internet forums in which fans vent their anger. The Yellow Dragons, the ultras of Premier League team Ismailia SC, have threatened to boycott their team’s matches if the club failed to cap players’ salaries. Their threat forced star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou to lower his sights in negotiations with Ismailia for a renewal of his contract. Abd-Rabou was reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day. Ismailia SC staff has gone on strike to demand higher wages.

“We shouldn’t have waited for a revolution to do the right thing. Pundits have been talking about that barometer for around 15 years but nothing was realized. I’m not against the players who earn millions of pounds if they are able to bring to their club a large amount of money through their capabilities. We should not blame the players, we should blame the unprofessional administrations of the clubs,” said prominent Egyptian sports critic Hassan El-Mestekawy in an interview with Reuters news agency.

The introduction of transfer pricing and salary caps could transform Egypt, whose professional league is among the most competitive in the Middle East and Africa from a soccer player and coach importer into an exporter of talent with players and coaches seeking greener pastures abroad. The transformation would allow cash-starved Egyptian clubs to shore up their finances. “Players should be aware that the clubs’ current financial position is not healthy,” says Al Ahly marketing director Adli Al-Qaeyi, the architect of the club’s high-profile signings.

Resistance to the calls for austerity has deepened the clove between fans on the one hand and clubs, players and coaches on the other at a time soccer institutions and personalities are increasingly embattled because of alleged support and ties to the former Mubarak regime, financial problems and accusations of corruption. Fan criticism mirrors demands directed by Egyptians against other pillars of the state and society.

The divide has wiped out perceptions during the revolt that Al Ahly in contrast to Al Zamalek had sought to align itself with the anti-Mubarak protesters by refusing to train during the protests and opposing Mubarak-backed proposals to revive professional league matches behind closed doors. By contrast, Zamalek prided itself on maintaining its training schedule during the revolt, playing an African championship match in Nairobi and supporting a restricted lifting of the ban on domestic matches. Zamalek’s seemingly pro-Mubarak stance was reinforced by pro-Mubarak statements by two of its board members who also took part in demonstrations against the president’s distracters. They were joined in their support for Mubarak by Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata.

Fan anger and activism has so far prevented Egypt’s military authorities from endorsing the EFA’s call for a resumption of suspended professional league matches. The military appears to have authorized a match between Al Ahly and Supersport in Cairo Stadium on March 18 as a further litmus test. The military however has yet to decide whether the test will be a further evaluation of the mood among soccer fans or a testing of responses to allowing matches to go ahead behind closed doors. The military initially tested the water by letting Zamalek play a February 27 African championship against Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars in Cairo’s Military Academy Stadium in the presence of 10,000 fans. The match was played without incident.

The military’s reluctance contrasts with the Tunisian government’s decision to allow the resumption of suspended league matches behind closed doors for the first time since mass anti-government protests drove President Zine Abedine Ben Ali in January from power after 23 years in office. Tunisia, like Egypt, continues to be wracked by demonstrations that have forced interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and several of his Cabinet members to resign. The lifting of the ban follows last week’s African championship match between Tunisia’s Club Africain and Rwanda’s ARP – the first game to be played in Tunisia since the popular revolt drove Ben Ali into exile. The match, which was played without incident in front of 10,000 fans in the Rades Stadium outside Tunis, was widely viewed as a litmus test for a resumption of professional soccer.

The rift between Egyptian fans and clubs, managers and players is aggravated by the fact that a majority of players and coaches stayed on the sidelines during the walk-up to Mubarak’s ousting. The rift reinforces the military’s reluctance to return Egyptian soccer to normal. An Al Ahly banner displayed by fans during last week’s friendly against Harras El-Hodoud read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."

Player and soccer manager attitudes towards the revolt in Egypt like those of the Libyan national squad reflect a complex relationship of the ruled with the dictator that is evident across the Arab world. It is an attitude that cannot be reduced to vested economic interest or privilege but constitutes an expression of the dictator’s success in getting those he rules to internalize his positioning as the nation’s father. It is that rupture of the internalization articulated in statements of protesters that they had broken the fear barrier that constitutes the core of the Arab world’s newly found people power.

The internalization of the dictator as a father figure means that players and managers often support protesters’ demands for an end to corruption, greater transparency and more freedom, but object to the perceived indignity to which they see their leader or father as being subjected to. It is an attitude that resembles that of a child who defends his father irrespective of whether his father is right or wrong.

The absence of a majority of players from the anti-Mubarak protests has nonetheless sparked fan furor and is forcing clubs and players to defend their positions in a bid to re-win fan support and fend off calls for resignations of key personnel. Club managers look at demonstrations in the port city of Alexandria that last week forced the resignation of the chairman and three board members of Premier League team Ittihad Al-Skandarya. In a separate incident, a board member of Ismailia SC, a prominent local lawyer, was found in his apartment stabbed to death. It was not immediately clear if the killing was related to soccer.

Ibrahim Hassan, a Zamalek board member and his brother, Zamalek coach Hossam Hassan have been particular targets of fan ire because of their close ties to Mubarak and support for the ousted president. Hossam was attacked by fans on Saturday while on his way to the club’s offices. Military police intervened to protect him. The Hassan brothers alongside national coach Shehata were last month blacklisted by a popular Egyptian website because of the support for Mubarak. Fans have called for their resignations.

“I know that several Zamalek and Ahli fans are asking me and Hossam to step down, but I want to clarify that we weren’t against the revolution. We didn’t like vandalizing properties and we were totally against humiliating the president because he is a symbol of the nation,” Ibrahim Hassan said last month in defense of himself and his brother.

In a statement this weekend to Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com, Al Ahly football committee member Hadi Khashaba asserted that the club’s players had been impartial rather than pro-Mubarak. "Democracy means that every one of us has his own opinion. It's personal and we can't force a player to have a certain perspective. Most of Ahli's players were impartial and that was up to them," Khashaba said.

Egyptian top tier, police-owned soccer club Ittihad El-Shorta last month sought to distance itself from Egypt’s hated police force, identified by many as a pillar of the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak The Egyptian police and security forces are widely blamed for the deaths of 365 people in the protests and for two days of violent attacks on the protesters by pro-Mubarak forces. Club manager Talaat Youssef noted that in contrast to other clubs several of his players had joined the protests. “The team is independent from the Ministry of Interior, we’re a separate sports entity that has nothing to do with politics. So please there is no need to be hostile against our club,” Youssef said.

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