Soccer Training Becomes Political Football in Egypt

Egypt’s youth and Olympic soccer teams are likely to re-start training on Saturday in a bid to ensure that they are prepared for upcoming international matches and a move that significant segments of their fan base may see as a statement of support for embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian Football Association (EFA) technical director Fathi Nousir said the teams had agreed on a re-start of the training and were waiting for EFA approval.

Soccer has become an important factor in two weeks of mass anti-government protests demanding an immediate end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The protests have split the country between supporters and opponents of the Egyptian leader, leaving no middle or neutral grounds.

“I had a meeting with the technical staff of the teams and we agreed to begin the training camps next Saturday,” Nousir said on the EFA’s website.

“We also agreed to organize some training camps outside Egypt, including friendly games, but we are waiting for the EFA board’s approval,” Nousir added.

Mubarak and his detractors are locked into a stalemate with the president seeking to undermine support for his opponents by demonstrating that Egypt is returning to normal after having been paralyzed by the protests for the past two weeks.

The protesters accuse Mubarak of failing to create jobs and providing better quality of life as well as of corruption and widespread abuse of human rights.

A resumption of soccer training that was halted by the Egyptian military two weeks ago in conjunction with the indefinite cancellation by the EFA of all matches in Egypt’s four professional leagues constitutes an important element in Mubarak’s return-to-normalcy strategy.

Lifting the suspension of matches, however, would be a significant achievement for Mubarak. So far, the government doesn’t appear to feel secure enough to do so. Matches would provide soccer-crazy Egyptians with another rally point for anti-government protests and risk renewed clashes between the opposition and largely government-paid supporters of Mubarak.

The issue of training and a resumption of matches has become a political football with different clubs taking up positions on both sides of the fence. It has also opened up fault lines within clubs themselves.

Soccer fans have played a key role in the protests as have various soccer players.

Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata, who has made religion as important a criterion as soccer skill for admission to the country’s squad, this week publicly expressed support for Mubarak holding on to power.

"I hope that Mubarak can remain in his post until September's elections. This is essential for Egypt's stability," Shehata.

Egypt’s Olympic team is gearing up for a match against Botswana as part of the qualifiers for the 2012 London Olympics scheduled for March in Cairo. The-U-20 team is slated to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations U-20 tournament that opens in Libya on March 18.

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