As Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi still refused to relinquish his leadership this week, millions of protesters increased their vocal pressure on the current regime. Football and it’s disciples, as it invariably does in the modern world, have not emerged unscathed and have played a reluctant supporting role in the countries turmoil.
Only this week Egypt’s Sports Minister El_amry Farouk resigned from his post becoming the sixth minister to do so under Morsi. Farouk had a tempestuous relationship with football fans, imposing crowd bans, clashing with Chairmen of Egypt’s biggest clubs but positively had a large influence in kick-starting the Egyptian Premier League after a years postponement.
Infamously what caused the League’s stoppage was a violent, tragic riot in February 2012 at a domestic game between fans of al-Ahly and al-Masry. The result were the deaths of seventy-four people, the largest death count in it’s football history. Eighteen months later twenty one people have been sentenced to death for their part in the carnage. Interestingly all fans sentenced were al-Masry supporters and this in turn caused protests by their families and friends against policeman that resulted in another eight deaths. Al-Ahly supporters continue to blame the followers of former toppled leader Mubarak for the riots.
Amongst the chaos however Egyptian football is determined to progress as much as it physically can. The domestic Egyptian Premier League, continues to provoke passionate support as the championship nears sixty years young. Following a traditional European format, eighteen teams compete for honours with the bottom three relegated to the Second Division. Nine separate TV channels share broadcasting rights, such is the demand from viewers. With no sign of abating al-Ahly have dominated, one of two teams that have competed in every campaign from inception and winning thirty-six titles out of fifty-six along the way. Founded by students against colonisation the team was on course to win the 2012-2013 championship and make it eight consecutive trophies to add to their incredible record on the continent; seven African Champions League making them the most successful team in Africa. However like in 2011-2012 the League has been postponed with the delicate security situation increasing.
Trailing behind on eleven titles is Zamalek, also based in Cairo but in a wealthy suburb of the same name. Add to that it’s five African Champions Leagues and you begin to see the strength of Egyptian football. To further highlight al-Ahly’s and Zamalek’s dominance, the third most successful club is Ismaily with three titles and a scattering of other teams with one championship each.
Meanwhile the national team seem intent on ending a 24 year hiatus from the finals of the biggest prize in football. Coached by American Bob Bradley ‘The Pharaohs’ have qualified convincingly for the final World Cup 2014 qualifying round winning five out of five with one to play in the second round. Ranked as recently as 2010 as the 9th best team in the world, but currently 71st, they have marked their territory on their continent taking seven African Cup of Nations, winning three of the last four.
Current flavour of the month is twenty year old Switzerland based Mohamed Salah. The FC Basel striking has scored fifteen times in twenty-two appearances for his nation and is lighting up the Swiss League with his Messi-style runs and clinical finishing. Hull City have recently signed impressive Ahmed El-Muhammady from Sunderland, a right wing-back and one of the most capped players in the squad at twenty-five years old. Representing the domestic league’s strength is Mohamed Aboutrika of al-Ahly, scoring forty-one goals in ninety-nine appearances from midfield, an almost 1:2 ratio matched for his club.
On the cusp of World Cup qualification a group of the team have called time on their careers. Al-Ahly’s Mohamed Barakat never graced any of the European leagues but his creativity was immense. A former BBC African Footballer of the Year, he retired just last month with honours including multiple domestic Championships and four African Champions League wins. Joining him at just thirty years old is the journeyman Mido. The former Ajax, Tottenham, Roma, Marseille and finally Barnsley forward commanded some huge fees and was banned twice by the national team for his lack of discipline.
As football is increasingly becoming a casualty of the unrest across a host of Middle-East and Arab nations, Egypt are a beacon of hope despite their current turmoil. Unfortunately there is no sign of the domestic league restarting anytime soon but with nineteen out of twenty-five of the latest national squad playing their club football in the homeland, the signs are positive and they will look to be one of the powerhouses on the continent for some years to come, Morsi or no Morsi.