Osasu Obayiuwana: Egypt takes another uncertain turn

As the ‘cradle of civilisation’ remains trapped in the maelstrom of another political crisis, following the removal of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, from office last Wednesday, football – yet to recover from the consequences of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak – has been sucker-punched yet again.

With just one round of the regular national championship left to play, before the start of the decisive four-team title play-off involving Ahly, Zamalek, Ismaili and ENPPI, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) ‘indefinitely’ postponed its resumption.

“Egypt’s interests should come before anything else. I personally want to resume the league but the final decision lies in the hands of the security officials,” said EFA vice-chairman Hassan Farid.

With the frontline role that large, well-organised supporters’ groups, especially those from Ahly and Zamalek, the country’s two leading clubs, have played – and continue to play – in the transformation of the ever-evolving political landscape, as they are actively involved in street protests, demanding political rights and societal change, it is no surprise that the country’s authorities have not permitted the resumption of the league, in a clearly charged atmosphere.

Last Thursday’s decision comes off the back of a national championship that only began in February, after a one-year suspension, a direct consequence of the tragic death of 70 fans in a bloody fight at the Port Said stadium, following a match between Masry, the local club, and Ahly.

Regarded, until very recently, as one of Africa’s best-organised and financially lucrative leagues, the Egyptian championship has been blighted by the political crisis that has engulfed the country over the last two years.

With fans banned from watching league matches since the Port Said tragedy, for fear of further violence, television revenue – which was absent during the one-year suspension – has been the main source of income for clubs desperately struggling to pay player’s salaries and other bills.

And the Pharaohs, the national team with the greatest number of wins at the Africa Cup of Nations, was also sucked into the stormy political climate.

After the distinction of becoming the first side to lift three consecutive titles – in 2006, 2008 and 2010, playing a tactically astute brand of football that was head and shoulders above their continental peers, the team inexplicably collapsed like a pack of cards, failing to qualify for the last two tournaments, in Equatorial Guinea/Gabon and South Africa.

With several members of the national side and Hassan Shehata, the erstwhile coach, being seen, in the eyes of many Egyptians, as ‘traitors’ that pitched their tents with the unpopular regime of Hosni Mubarak (who was a major patron and financial backer of the team), who refused to publicly back the uprising against their benefactor, the Pharaohs’ bond with the country’s largely football mad 85 million people – who are usually passionate about the national team – was badly damaged.

Rebuilding the national team’s link to the Egyptian people and restoring its fearsome reputation on African pitches has been the major task occupying Bob Bradley, the American that took charge of the team since September 2011.

As Bradley aptly observed, whilst writing the foreward to James Montague’s book, ‘When Friday Comes’, which chronicles the power of football throughout the Arab world, “the challenges of managing the Egyptian national team have a lot to do with a personal navigational system, the type of GPS that reads people, situations, politics and emotions.”

Bradley’s task – earning Egypt their third appearance at the Kas Al Aalam (Arabic for ‘World Cup’) finals, after appearing at the 1934 and 1990 tournaments, both in Italy, has been the major challenge for the former manager of the US national team.

Bearing in mind that the Pharaohs had no competitive games for the first nine months of his tenure and competed in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers with a group of players largely lacking match fitness, as a result of the absence of domestic competition (the majority of national team players are home-based), it is a major achievement that they won every game in their group.

They are the only African team to do so, with just a round of games to go in the group stages.

With only a home and away tie in the subsequent 10-team final stage of African qualifiers standing between them and a place in Brazil, World Cup qualification is one thing that will unite, even for a fleeting moment, a country bitterly torn apart by politics.

But that will only be a consolation if the national championship isn’t nurtured back to health.

Far from departing the Intensive Care Unit, as it tries to overcome the consequences of the previous 12-month shutdown, another long-term closure of the championship could be a knockout blow with irreversible, disastrous consequences.

That is something Egypt’s political authorities should avoid at all costs, even as it grapples with the larger – and clearly more important – task of charting a roadmap that will put the North African country on an irreversible democratic path that will guarantee stability and economic progress for its people, from which football can only benefit.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1634528044labto1634528044ofdlr1634528044owedi1634528044sni@a1634528044nawui1634528044yabo.1634528044usaso1634528044

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.