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World Cup 2018: Fear Kills Flair for Egypt

Ahmed Awaad/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Fans watching the World Cup match between Egypt and Russia on a screen in Cairo, Egypt, June 19, 2018

This is the tenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

 

Soon after my family moved from Egypt to London, when I was seven years old and my brother was three, my mother sat us down for a talk: we are Egyptian and Muslim, she told us, remember that.

My father did not have to sit us down for a talk. But we learned every Saturday night, as we sat by his side watching “Match of the Day” broadcast one of that day’s English Division One football games, that we were also football fans (ever since, my dad and brother have supported Liverpool, while I’ve been a fan of Manchester United). And we remembered that.

Egyptian, Muslim, and football fans: all came together on June 15 when Egypt played Uruguay in its first World Cup match in twenty-eight years. It was also the first day of Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. And it was also the birthday of a man called Mohamed Salah, whose incandescent talent propelled us to the tournament in Russia. Over the years, my family has returned to Egypt and left again several times; but no matter the time zone, country, or city we’re in, WhatsApp has become Egyptians’ virtual living room, where we congregate to wish each other “Eid Mubarak” (“blessed celebration”) and, of course, to argue about Egypt’s performance.

The first World Cup that my brother and I watched with our father was the 1978 tournament that Argentina hosted and won. I did not realize then that my dad had yet to see Egypt on football’s biggest stage because when Egypt became the first African country to qualify for a World Cup, in 1934—the only time we had before 1978—he wasn’t yet born. Although Egyptians have cheered plenty for our national squad’s continental success—we have won the Africa Cup of Nations a record seven times—we had to wait until 1990 to see our country play again in the World Cup. Two draws and one loss sent us home from that tournament in Italy after the first round.

No matter what other sports we excel at—we are world champions in squash—it is success at international soccer that eludes us. And partly because of these eternally thwarted hopes, football in Egypt has often been a distraction, a diversion through which a burdened population finds joy otherwise absent in people’s lives. Which is also why our love for the game has often been manipulated by those in power for other ends. There have already been signs of that dynamic this summer.

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In Egypt, we have been living under an almost unbroken series of military-backed dictatorships since 1952. This has ruined our political life, filled our prisons with some 60,000 political prisoners, and destroyed many forms of creative expression. Even our imagination is repressed—and you could tell from the timid way we played against Uruguay that we lack the flair and boldness necessary to succeed on soccer’s international stage. We smashed a window of our intellectual confinement when we rose up against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, but our military rulers’ international allies took their side over us, sending weapons and sealing deals with them that maintained “stability” and continued to keep our imaginations shackled.

In 2013, the former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power by force after mass protests against the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, elected a year earlier. Soon after Morsi was overthrown, Sisi’s security forces moved to break up a protest by Morsi supporters and killed almost a thousand Egyptians in the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history. No one has been held accountable. Sisi has since won two “elections,” by 96 percent and 97 percent respectively. He has banned protests and rounded up almost every critical voice.

At times, football in Egypt has been not so much a distraction from its political conflicts as a proxy for them. During the 2011 revolution, supporters of the country’s top football club, Ahly, played a crucial part in the protests, confronting the police and Mubarak’s goons. A year later, though, more than seventy people, many of whom were members of the hard-core supporters’ group Ultras Ahlawy, were killed after a match in Port Said against Ahly’s bitter rival, Masry. The Ultras maintained that police failed to intervene when Masry fans reportedly attacked Ahly supporters with machetes, strangled them with team scarves, and pushed them off the stadium’s high terraces. It was punishment, the Ahly supporters believed, for the part they’d played in the revolution.

After the Port Said incident, supporters of all clubs were banned from attending most domestic league matches on the grounds of “fan safety.” Three years later, just before this ban was due to be lifted, more than twenty people, most of them Zamalek fans, were killed in a stampede after police used tear gas to disperse a crowd attempting to enter a stadium before a game. Zamalek’s White Knights also believed they were targeted by police. (Last month, both the Ultras Ahlawy and the White Knights supporter groups disbanded.) Since the ban remains in place, many of Egypt’s players have been playing, for years now, in empty stadiums.   

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The day before Egypt’s game against Uruguay, Sisi swore in a new cabinet that included new defense and interior ministers—two powerful positions—and we were given no reason why. The day after the game, his government hiked gasoline prices by up to 50 percent as part of austerity measures under an IMF reform plan. Of course, Sisi would hardly be the first Egyptian leader to use a big football tournament as convenient cover for pushing through unpopular economic policies in a country that suffers from double-digit unemployment and inflation rates.

All this is part of why Mohamed Salah—the young man who turned twenty-six on June 15, who was not even born when last we qualified for the World Cup finals—means so much to us. It is not just his prolific scoring and extraordinary playing ability. More miraculously, he has united a country bitterly divided among those who support the Muslim Brotherhood, or the military, or neither—those like me who oppose both. But today, I fear that with Salah, Egyptians are, once again, looking to one man to save us, and I worry about what a burden that is.

Against Uruguay, Salah didn’t play. A few weeks ago, his club team Liverpool played against Real Madrid in the European Champions League final. Salah scored an incredible forty-four goals for Liverpool this season, but against Real he was brought down by a brutal tackle from  defender Sergio Ramos and sustained a shoulder injury. This event—followed first by the fear that Salah would be out of the Cup altogether, then by the news that he likely would recover in time, and then by his watching from the bench in the first match—has defined our World Cup experience.

When we lost 1-0 against Uruguay, it was easy to tell ourselves that we had held until the eighty-ninth minute. But we didn’t ask why we were playing for a draw, or why we expected so little of ourselves. Fewer still ask why, in a country where Christians comprise 10 percent of the population, the entire squad is Muslim. And if we are so good at squash and clearly struggling at international football, what does that say about Egypt’s inability to play as a team? The World Cup is both the mirage we endlessly chase and the uncomfortable reflection of questions we refuse to confront.

Before Egypt’s second game, against Russia, the word was that Salah would play. We needed him—but we also needed to recognize, my dad insisted to my brother-in-law as they walked to Eid prayers after the Uruguay match (as my sister told me when we spoke that night), that it is not enough, after twenty-eight years, to consider simply qualifying for Russia a victory in itself. As Salah himself had said in an interview before the tournament: “We want to make history and achieve something different.”

I watched the Russia game with my dad in yet another new home for us, in the US, forty years after we’d watched our first World Cup together. Egyptian, Muslim, football fan: the past four decades have bent and tested all my identities. As much as I, too, love Salah, I have been unable to cheer for him when he wears the red shirt of Liverpool, my team’s great rival. And this was why I went to join my dad—so that we could both cheer for Salah when he wore the red of Egypt.

When we went down 3-0, I teared up. I was so frustrated that after waiting all that time to return to the biggest sporting tournament in the world, we played a timid game, devoid of imagination or joy. I envied the fans of Mexico, Iceland, and Senegal, who, I was sure, had delighted as their teams looked opponents who were football giants in the eye and dared to challenge them.

The sole bright spot came when we were awarded a penalty, and Salah stepped up to take it. Of course, being Salah, he scored. Just as he scored the penalty against Congo that helped Egypt qualify. A consolation goal in a 3-1 defeat that means Egypt will not advance to the knockout stage of the tournament. Salah has carried so much for us. I know he, too, wanted more.