Thirteen tumultuous years separate the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) and the last time Egypt hosted the continent’s flagship tournament.
In many ways Egypt is the same. The north African nation is still obsessed with football. Al Ahly and Zamalek remain the biggest clubs in the country and in Africa. The tournament still gravitates around Cairo International Stadium, where a hopeful 75 000 fill the double-bowl structure during the Pharaohs’ home matches, and an uncontested military man, more interested in consolidating power than in sport, inaugurated the tournament with a spectacular opening ceremony.
Yet, in many ways, Egypt has changed. Domestic football powered Egypt’s 2006 side, but since the Egyptian revolution, local football has become a shell of itself. As stadiums became a place of political expression, a concerted effort has been made to extinguish the passion and intimidation that once made Cairo International Stadium a “war zone” for Ivorian Didier Drogba at the 2006 Cup of Nations final.
Comparing the two tournaments and the two Egyptian squads is inevitable. Both sides won their three Group A matches, yet with the changes in Egyptian football as well as the behaviour of some of the players, the current national team and Cup of Nations have been tarnished for large swathes of the Egyptian population.
Exclusive stadium atmosphere
Before the tournament, the organising committee drew the ire of the Egyptian public after the prices of the Pharaohs’ matches were published. The prices were widely criticised as expensive and unaffordable for many Egyptians. The organisers were forced to apologise and re-evaluate the prices. The cheapest ticket for Egypt’s matches was set at EGP200 (about R170) with the most expensive going for EGP2 500 (close to R2 120). The price was lowered to EGP150 (around R127) after the outcry.
Mohamed* and Bassem* are Al Ahly diehards in their twenties. Mohamed has become so dismayed with the Pharaohs that he no longer supports the Egyptian national team, while Bassem reflects more of a mainstream opinion that supports, but is not enamoured by them.
Both confirmed that the majority of Egyptian supporters that ended up attending matches at Cairo International Stadium were not from the working class. As for the minority of supporters that could afford cheaper tickets in category three, they have sometimes allegedly faced harassment by law enforcement officers when they participated in silent protests by flashing their cellphone lights at the 20th and 74th minutes of the game in protest against the injustice of the 30 June Stadium stampede and Port Said Stadium Massacre.
The 30 June Stadium stampede, in a league match between Zamalek and ENPPI, resulted in the death of 20 fans while 74 people lost their lives in Port Said during a match between Al Ahly and Al Masry.
“The stadium has become increasingly exclusive. I was at the Zimbabwe game and I saw four or five people wearing Yeezys. That’s the atmosphere in the stadium,” Mohamed said, before admitting that he also owns a pair of the designer sneakers. But he said would never wear them to a match.
Bassem bemoaned the lack of intensity and the tepid clap-clap-clap-clap “Egypt!” chants, especially in comparison with other supporters who have made an impression in Egypt.
“I went to the Algeria versus Senegal match because I missed participating in a real stadium atmosphere. There were only 2 500 Algerian fans and they made more noise than 70 000 casual fans in Cairo Stadium. If we were not a footballing country, I would understand, but we are.”
Mohamed added, “Before 2011, what I liked about going to the stadium was that the rich, the poor, the middle class, white people, black people… everyone in the stadium was the same. Shoulder to shoulder, supporting the same team. It was kind of like what we wanted to happen in 2011.”
Bigger than their boots
Despite their 2018 World Cup qualification and 2017 Afcon run, losing to Cameroon in the final, most Egyptian supporters say this generation is inferior to the golden generation that preceded them.
“The current crop of players in Egypt is, for me, the worst crop of players we have seen in a long time,” said Bassem solemnly. “On the pitch they are technically inferior to their predecessors. Off the pitch, they do not know how to communicate. Mohamed Salah is arguably Egypt’s best ever player and he doesn’t know how to communicate.”
Salah is unique beyond his footballing capabilities. He is one of very few players who has been catapulted into superstardom without passing by Al Ahly or Zamalek. On one hand, that increased his popularity as he is no one’s enemy, but on the other it means that the country’s most loyal supporters will not be as quick to defend the Liverpool striker when stumbling into delicate situations.
“I used to like Salah until the World Cup saga. Salah requested to have a room alone in 2018. As a leader, you should stay with the team. He requested so many other things too, like bodyguards, being picked up from the airport… It feels like he forgot where he came from a little,” said Bassem.
“When he went back to his village for Eid, he tweeted, ‘Where is the respect and privacy, I can’t even go out to pray?’ When you look at the pictures outside of his house, there were maybe 50 people outside of his house. He is a hero for a lot of people, especially for people from his village. But there’s a good number of people who think he is full of himself. Taking a photo with 50 people would take an hour out of your day.
“I don’t like to compare players to Mohamed Aboutrika, because he isn’t your average footballer, but he would never tweet something like that. He would never object to that.”
On the streets of Cairo, some speculate that it is Salah’s agent, Rami Abbas, that is to blame for his communication mishaps. No one knows if Abbas tweets on Salah’s behalf, but the agent’s own Twitter timeline is a public relations disaster. He often advocates for “men’s rights”, and against “political correctness” and “liberal snowflake weakness”.
Amr Warda scandal
The Salah-Aboutrika comparisons have only increased since the Amr Warda scandal broke out. Warda, a 25-year-old forward with 29 appearances for the Egyptian national team, had been harassing women for racy photos online. When denied or ignored, he would then inexplicably insult and/or block and unblock them.
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) initially decided to suspend Warda for the duration of the tournament, before reinstating him after a half-hearted apology in which Warda did not apologise to nor address his victims. The EFA’s statement that brought Warda back mentioned that several senior players campaigned on his behalf.
Salah posted a controversial tweet, saying, “Women must be treated with the utmost respect. ‘No’ means ‘no’. Those things are and must remain sacred. I also believe that many who make mistakes can change for the better and shouldn’t be sent straight to the guillotine, which is the easiest way out.”
The next day, Aboutrika posted a religious saying, “If you’re going to be passionate about something, be passionate about perfecting ethics and morals.” It was a strong hint that the EFA prioritised football over character.
Some Egyptian fans were not happy with Aboutrika, claiming he was forcing unfair comparisons with Salah, with whom he had hitherto shared a mentor-mentee relationship.
Mohamed was apathetic. “Whatever, fuck Salah. Salah may be the best Egyptian player, but Aboutrika is the greatest.”
Salah was not the only player that defended Warda. Ahmed Hegazi and Walid Soliman also expressed their support. After scoring against the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ahmed Elmohamady held up double deuces in reference to Warda’s No. 22 while Baher El Mohamady – on the bench – brandished a Warda shirt.
An Arabic Twitter hashtag trended following the match, dubbing the Pharaohs a #TeamOfHarassers.
‘These are not my heroes’
For Mena, an Egyptian supporter who works in sports marketing, Salah’s teammates simply did not understand the gravity of Warda’s actions, reflecting a wider cultural problem.
“I don’t think any of the players had bad intentions defending him. But you’re not defending your friend, you’re defending his actions. He’s not being punished because he’s your friend, he’s being punished because of his harassment. I think that comes from a cultural perspective where sexual harassment is not a big deal. These players seem genuinely surprised that such a big deal was made about it.
“The sheer amount of women that came out to expose him was insane, this wasn’t just a one-off. There’s a huge pattern, there’s something going on with this guy that’s not okay.
“This drove a wedge between Egyptian women and some Egyptian men, because women feel it much more than men do as they are the victims of sexual harassment. A lot of girls have become bitter. When you watch the team, you just feel like ‘these are not my heroes’, especially the players that defend Amr Warda.”
Mena lauded former captains like Ahmed Hassan and Wael Gomaa for their character. Ahead of Egypt’s final match of the group stage, Gomaa spoke on a television network beIN Sports panel, admonishing coach Javier Aguirre’s passiveness for allowing the EFA to interfere in the Warda situation and recall a player after he had already been sent home.
“It cemented a general feeling that this generation of footballers are not the same heroes that we had in 2006,” Mena said. “It’s not so much about these players in particular, but as a team and as a football association, so much has changed.”
*Names have been changed.