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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Law Suits likely to Spark Restructuring of Egyptian Soccer

Corruption charges filed against former Egyptian Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmy in the wake of the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak have heightened concerns that financially troubled top-tier soccer clubs may no longer enjoy generous government support. The fears are compounded by a second case filed by an Egyptian lawyer against Fahmy that seeks to halt all public funding of Egyptian soccer.

If successful, the law suits would initiate a radical restructuring of soccer club ownership in Egypt where half of the country’s 16 Premier League teams and many lower league squads are owned by government institutions, the military and the police. The legal efforts to curtail politically motivated public funding of soccer heighten the financial crisis confronting clubs as a result of the three-month suspension of Egyptian professional league matches in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point. They are also likely to blow new life into efforts by world soccer body FIFA to persuade the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to reduce public ownership.

As petroleum minister, Fahmy moved to the forefront of the Mubarak regime’s effort to employ soccer to improve its image and distract Egyptians from their myriad economic, social and political problems. Fahmy’s successor, Abdullah Ghorab, the former CEO of state-owned Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, is believed to be less keen on continuing Fahmy’s generous handouts.

Appointed in 1999, Fahmy poured public funds into soccer powerhouses Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries Club (ENPPI) founded in 1980 barely two years after the creation of his ministry by its subsidiary, the Egyptian Oil and Gas Company (EOGC), and Suez-based Petrojet by another subsidiary, the Egyptian Petrol Company. Fahmy also increased funding for ministry-owned second tier clubs Petrol Asyut and GASCO. The funding enabled ENPPI to graduate to the Premier League in 2002, followed by Petrojet a year later.

Backed by Egyptian oil dollars, ENPPI and Petrojet moved quickly to sign some of Egypt’s top players, including international striker Amr for LE1.5 million in 2003 what was then a whopping $300,000 and international winger Ahmed Elmohamady, who this month was sold to English Premier League club Sunderland for $3 million as well as foreign players like Ghanaian international strikers Eric and Coffi Bekoe.

ENPPI Mahmoud Saleh, speaking to Al Ahram Online, downplayed the threat of reduced funding. “All matters are stable. The departure of Sameh Fahmy will not affect us at all, because the clubs belong to companies not the minister, or the ministry.” Saleh suggested that ENPPI owner EOGC was turning millions of Egyptian pounds in profit and would have no issue maintaining its level of funding.

Fahmy, insisting that he acted on orders of Mubarak, is standing trial on charges of corruption in pricing Egyptian gas exports, including to Israel. Ghorab said he was reviewing Egypt’s export contracts with Israel as well as Jordan. Egyptian media, critical of the petroleum ministry’s expenditure on soccer, said it had spent EGP 82 million ($13.8 million) on player acquisition in the past year.

Lawyer Hesham Abd-Rabou filed a lawsuit against Fahmy for "spending millions from public money to help Petrojet and Enppi compete for the league title". He is demanding that the ministry disassociate itself from the soccer clubs. Fahmy was widely criticised by local media for spending big to strengthen the squads of Petrojet and Enppi last summer.

The two lawsuits, involving expenditure on high salaries for coaches and players, have fuelled controversy over a proposal by the Egyptian Soccer Association (EFA) to cap incomes as part of an effort to impose financial austerity. Fans threaten to boycott matches while coaches and players warn that caps will undermine Egypt’s position as an African soccer powerhouse.

Some coaches and players argue that large amounts are only played by crowned Cairo rival Al Ahly SC, Egypt’s most popular club, Al Zamalek SC. “The reported amounts in terms of salaries or budget are not true. Walid Soliman (nicknamed Egypt’s Leo Messi after the world’s foremost soccer player) is the highest paid player in our squad with an LE900,000 ($150,000) annual salary. Any other player with the same talent at (Cairo's) Ahly or Zamalek receives at least three or four million Egyptian pounds per season,” ENPPI’s Saleh said.

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