By Hesham Hassanein.
When it comes to sports in Egypt, football is king. And not by a small margin either.
Despite finding more success in sports like handball and squash, nothing comes close to the cult-like following that is enjoyed by Egyptian football.
Egypt’s success at continental level has only elevated the game’s status and fortunately, I was able to experience this new fervour in person recently.
I visited Egypt during the Africa Cup of Nations twice — once in 2008, and again in 2019 when Egypt actually hosted the tournament. The packed cafes in the streets, the overjoyed family homes filled to the brim with excited members, the raucous street celebrations following a big win — it was all so infectious.
Seeing this environment in person, I immediately thought: if there is so much passion for this sport, then why isn’t Egypt better at football?
A nation of 100 million people with a remarkable passion for the game — on paper they should be on top (or at least close to it)!
But Egypt’s success has been entirely continental; with the country having seven Africa Cup of Nations wins (but none since 2010) and fifteen African Champions League titles to their name.
Their dominance in Africa is so strong that the country with the second-most Champions League winners is a three-way tie between Tunisia, Congo and Morocco (with six titles each).
So why does Egypt fail to live up to its potential and why is our success only continental? The short answer: the dynamics and corruption within the Egyptian Football Association (EFA).
From the way the EFA runs the Egyptian League to the way they handle the National team, the EFA seems to work hard to prevent Egyptian success on every football front.
This article will focus on the main failings of the EFA: driving the National Team’s quality down and abusing the national team for selfish gains.
Egyptian National Team: The Pharaohs
The Pharaohs are the pride of all Egyptian football fans. Being Africa’s most successful national team, Egyptians often claim to boast the most powerful squad on the continent.
And yet, despite all the dominant performances that led to Egypt winning a record seven African cups, the world cup has managed to evade the Pharaohs for three decades — a curse that was finally broken in 2018 when a Mohamed Salah-led squad qualified for Russia in 2018.
No doubt this was a massive moment in the history of Egyptian football. I myself watched the game in the early hours of the morning in an apartment in South Korea, and the Salah goal that led Egypt to the World Cup reduced me to tears. This was a big deal, something most Egyptians had never seen before.
The Egyptian FA, however, abused this opportunity and did everything in their power to milk as much money from the Pharaohs’ qualification as possible.
Starting with travel arrangements and training, the EFA made the Pharaohs fly on economy class; the only team in the world cup to do so.
Next, they decided to base the team’s training camp in Chechnya which was a long way from all of Egypt’s games. This meant that the team had to travel incredible amounts of time and they wasted valuable energies trying to get to their games.
To make matters worse, the Egyptian FA also allowed Egyptian celebrities to barge into players’ hotel rooms all for the purpose of taking pictures with the stars — a move that burdened the already-exhausted members of the national team.
Liverpool star Salah, the star player of the Pharaohs, pinned the blame on the EFA as he described the intrusions into his hotel room.
“I asked for more security for all players, not only for me,” he said. “We had many disturbances at the team’s camp during our participation at the World Cup.”
Salah also talked about how he and the other players weren’t allowed to even leave to do simple things due to the lack of security at their hotel.
Salah’s problems with the EFA didn’t stop there. The forward is Egypt’s first truly global football superstar and as such, he’s the most recognizable and marketable Egyptian product since the pyramids themselves.
For Salah, this is a blessing and a curse. He’s loved and looked up to, and his face is on every shop and store across the country. But the pressure of being the most marketable star in the country’s history doesn’t just apply when it comes to performances and titles. It also means that country’s famously corrupt Football Association looks at him as an asset worth exploiting.
After the EFA based the Pharaohs’ camp in Chechnya, Salah found out that he was to be “honoured” at a dinner with Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, paraded in front of the world as he was presented with “honorary Chechen citizenship.”
The dinner raised eyebrows across the football world, and Egyptians cried foul as they saw how their star was being milked by the EFA.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Egypt did very poorly at the world cup — losing all three games and returning home in disappointment. But the issues didn’t stop there.
Salah found himself once again at odds with the EFA when they decided to use his image without his permission for their own sponsorship deals – a move that violated the sponsorship agreements Salah had with his own sponsors.
This was the last straw for the player, after which he released a series of videos talking about the issues he had with the EFA. From the celebrities barging into his hotel room in Russia to the use of his face for sponsors, Salah discussed it all and the videos shocked the footballing community.
It didn’t surprise Egyptian football fans who were aware of EFA’s corruption, but the image of the nation’s top star helplessly addressing the abuse of the EFA was nevertheless, startling.
Now it’s important to point out that the EFA denies all of these accusations. They claim that all of these issues are just misunderstandings. That being said, it’s difficult to see the misunderstanding when Salah says the following:
“They [The EFA] said that nobody knocked on my room door at 4 am to take pictures with me, anyone is free to ask the hotel or the players…
“I’m not being difficult. I’m a player… how can other people just come and sit with me in my hotel room? I am being negatively impacted by this.”
Salah continued to describe his trials, comparing his treatment at the hands of the EFA to his treatment in Europe, saying that:
“Abroad, they give me this protection without me even asking for it. In Egypt, when I ask for it, there isn’t even a response.”
Now, these shocking statements are difficult to take in, and what makes it even worse is that the world cup in Russia should have been Egypt’s crowning moment — a catapult to a future where they could have become more dominant on an international stage.
Instead, the EFA went out of their way to abuse this opportunity and in turn, ruined Egypt’s chances of getting any international football success.
Now as brutal as that all is, the EFA also runs the Pharaohs operations when the world cup is not around — which is why my next point relates to their management-related decisions.
When you take a quick look at African football today, there are two nations that rise above the rest. Algeria and Senegal easily have the two strongest squads in Africa, with the two meeting in the 2019 African Cup of Nations final, which Algeria won 1-0.
Both teams are extremely well managed, with passionate, homegrown coaches, and unlike the trend in Africa of signing older European managers, Algeria and Senegal both have young local managers.
But while Algeria and Senegal bet on themselves, the EFA went in another direction. The EFA is obsessed with hiring foreign managers.
In 2019, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi got involved personally, demanding that the EFA hire an Egyptian manager for the Pharaohs.
Why did the president feel the need to get involved on a footballing issue? Despite the fact that Egypt’s greatest achievements in football came under native Egyptian managers such as Mahmoud El-Gohary and Hassan Shehata, the EFA continues to chase after foreigners.
Getting European managers, or managers with experience in Europe, isn’t necessarily a bad idea — the European game is the strongest on the planet. The problem, however, is that the EFA never tries to sign a recently successful European manager.
Instead, they often settle for managers that can no longer get a job in Europe — managers who are often past their prime with outdated schemes and ideas. In their chase for a foreign manager, the EFA continues to toss aside promising Egyptian coaches.
For the president of the country to call out its Football Association and demand some kind of action is more than embarrassing.
The President wasn’t alone in his call for action either. Legendary Egyptian player and the current manager of Alexandria side Ittihad Hossam Hassan was also very critical of the EFA’s approach.
“I do not know why we are insisting on hiring foreign coaches,” said Hassan. “The president of the EFA is determined on costing Egypt millions to hire a new foreign coach.
“We have to give an opportunity to an Egyptian coach, just like we previously relied on Mahmoud El Gohary and Hassan Shehata.”
Hassan’s plea came after the catastrophe that was the 2018 world cup, and yet, the EFA went and hired a foreign manager. The next big tournament? The 2019 Africa Cup, held in Egypt.
In shocking fashion, the Egyptian team was knocked out by South Africa in Cairo in the first knockout game of the competition. A competition that saw a repeat of the player abuse at the hands of the EFA — allowing rich and powerful people unusual access to the Pharaohs.
Following the shock exit from the Africa Cup, the EFA’s entire leadership — and the coaching staff that cost Egypt millions of pounds — were all gone. Following their resignation, the Egyptian government did an investigation into the financing of the EFA… which brings us to our final point.
The EFA is Egypt’s best-funded sports organization. Despite the handball team earning the country far more success, the government continues to invest much more in the EFA.
The EFA has used this money, not to build up infrastructure, but often for their own personal luxuries and to hire expensive foreign managers.
The EFA promised to build a $2.25m world-class academy to nurture Egyptian talent — an academy that now looks like a pipe dream.
We see members of the EFA on their first-class flights while at the same time, forcing their players to fly economy. Following their resignation, all members of the EFA were even banned from travelling at one point, until they could be investigated for corruption.
But it’s not just investigations. Prison sentences have been handed down. Brother and sister Hazem and Sahar Al-Hawari were both sentenced to five years in prison for falsely declaring bankruptcy while securing illegal loans from the bank of Cairo. And these are the people that were caught — allegations and rumours of extreme corruption against the top officials in the EFA are widespread.
The sad truth is, there is money available to help further develop football in Egypt. There is clearly passion and there is clearly talent. This is a country that has Africa’s most prestigious and oldest footballing history, but as long as the EFA remains corrupt, most of that doesn’t matter.
If the government gives them money to build academies, they hire washed-up foreign coaches. If the players qualify for a tournament, they torture them by selling access to them. All while enjoying luxuries for themselves, claiming the achievements of the Pharaohs as their own.
The reality is, any success Egypt achieves is not because of the Egyptian Football Association – it’s in spite of the Egyptian Football Association.
The EFA is holding Egyptian football back, and we haven’t even discussed how they run the Egyptian League or how so many positions within the EFA are inherited titles going from husband to wife to son to nephew. The EFA is one giant boulder of corruption that halts the progress brought forth by the efforts of the players.
In order for Egypt to reach its potential, there has to be accountability and massive reformation of the entire EFA with stronger regulations and oversight as to how they’re spending their resources.
There has to be more respect for the players. The EFA are not the stars of Egyptian football, the Pharaohs players are, but until that happens, Egypt will continue to slip behind other African nations, failing to fulfil their huge potential.