Al Ahly boycotts Egypt Cup
By James M. Dorsey
Egyptian soccer is in uproar over new penalties for fan violence and new marketing rules announced by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) that have prompted crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC, Africa’s most popular team, to boycott this season’s Egypt Cup.
The uproar comes as Confederation of African Football (CAF) secretary general Hicham El-Amrani upheld Egypt despite its multiple violations of world soccer body FIFA’s rules and regulations as an African example of the professionalization of sports.
The new penalties are designed to curb politically motivated militant soccer fan activism that since early September resulted in repeated clashes with security forces, the death of three protesters and the wounding of some 1,200 others, and the recent storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
Fourteen soccer fans are standing trial in two different cases for the riots. The courts are scheduled to issue verdicts in late November.
Militant, violence-prone, highly politicised supporters of Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC played a key role in mass anti-government protests early this year that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.
The militants have since protested to ensure that Turkey's transitional military rulers keep their promise to lead the country to democracy, for deeper measures to eradicate corruption in general and in soccer in particular, and in favour of Palestinian rights.
Egyptian Premier League clubs, who have been penalised for the repeated violence of their fans with hefty fines and bans on home matches, have denounced the new EFA penalties as unreasonable. The clubs object to the fact that the guidelines hold them responsible not only for the actions during a match of their own fans but also for those of the opposing club.
“They should have explained the rules before the beginning of the season. The association doesn’t consider the big clubs in the competitions, like Ahly and Zamalek,” said Al Ahly football director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz.
"This is ridiculous. Opponents’ fans can attend our matches, sit in our stands and set off fireworks in order to get us punished through home-matches bans. This is unfair. If this is the case, citizens should specify their favourite club on their national ID cards,” Mr. Abdel-Hafiz says.
Al Ahly and Zamalek have the two largest militant fan organisations with thousands of members and are the two most penalised clubs.
In a complaint to the EFA, Zamalek asserted that security in the stadium stands was the responsibility of the interior ministry and the security forces rather than the clubs.
“The club doesn’t have any authority to stop crowds and search them for fireworks, so the penalties aren’t reasonable,” Zamalek said in a statement on its website.
The controversy over the new penalties is compounded by a mounting dispute between the clubs and the EFA over new marketing rules designed to promote the soccer governing body rather than the clubs and their sponsors. The controversy has escalated with Al Ahly's decision to boycott the upcoming Egypt Cup.
Clubs are obliged under the new rules to put an EFA logo on their team irrespective of what sponsorship they may have.
“The association ignores the clubs marketing rights and this costs us a lot of money. The Ahly board refuses to give up the club’s marketing rights for the Egyptian Premier League season," the club said in a statement on its website issued after this week's board meeting.
To emphasise its position, Al Ahly, Egypt and Africa's most popular club with some 50 million fans, refused to participate in this week's launch of the Premier League for the media because it did want its officials to appear on pictures with the EFA logo in the background. The EFA has said it would fine Al Ahly for failing to take part in the launch.
The disputes and violations of FIFA rules in terms of club and stadium ownership and lack of self-sufficiency notwithstanding, CAF secretary general El-Amrani pointed to Egypt during a roundtable on Africa's progression from amateur to professional soccer as a model of professionalization.
Mr. El Amrani said that Egypt alongside Morocco and to a lesser degree Algeria were taking the organizational and structural steps alongside their focus on player specialization needed to professionalize. Algeria has gone the furthest in privatising soccer clubs.
“Some countries have realised the switch into professionalism, such as South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and at a lower standard Algeria. Senegal is also on the right path. I hear voices say that you must have big resources to achieve that goal, but that is not true, because you accomplish your project considering your options. Not all the clubs must have Manchester United’s merchandising style,” Mr. El Amrani said.
“Egypt is an exceptional case and a role model in the professionalism of African football.
The Egyptian national team are seven-time African champions with a squad that is mostly composed of locally based players,” he said, glossing over the fact that the Egyptian military owns several professional clubs, the ban by Egyptian security forces on clubs owning their own stadiums and Egypt’s lack of legal basis for merchandising and sale of broadcast rights in violation of FIFA rules.
To be sure, Egyptian clubs have benefitted from sponsorship deals, but those were more often than not politically motivated. Al Ahly recently signed a record-breaking $225 million deal with the UAE telecommunications company Etisalat based on its huge fan base.
Nonetheless, the divorce of soccer from politics has yet to really begin in Egypt and has fuelled in recent months repeated protests by militant soccer fans.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.