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London 2012: A crucial point in Egyptian football after a year of crisis
Crisis = Danger & Turning Points
It is a common misconception that the Chinese word for crisis ‘wēijī’ is composed of two characters, the first representing danger, the second representing opportunity. It is a trope often repeated by American politicians; Condoleezza Rice, Al Gore, and most famously, JFK, have all employed this notion to inspire, to call to arms, or to rally. It seems, however, that this triumvirate of public figures are mistaken; rather than meaning ‘opportunity’, the second component of this word ‘jī’ is in fact better translated as ‘crucial point’, or ‘pivotal moment’.
The words ‘crisis’ and ‘Egypt’ have been common bedfellows in recent times. The violence in Port Said on the 1st of February was well deserving of the ‘disaster’ tag. The repercussions in society and sport were far-reaching – and are still being felt today. Hangovers from the Arab Spring were perhaps inevitable, but on this scale, with this ferocity, and with this apparent calculation – surely was beyond the expectation of most.
A Context of Crisis
It is perhaps trite to revert to sport in the shadow of such devastation, but beyond Egyptian society, and for Egyptian football, domestic, continental, international, the 2012 Olympic Games come at a time of crisis.
After establishing themselves as the most successful national side the continent has ever seen, the Egyptian footballing cycle of 2006-10, winning three consecutive African Cups of Nations, seemed to come to a rude and abrupt halt in Sierra Leone. A home win confirmed that the Pharaohs would not be defending their title in Gabon & Equatorial Guinea, but by this point it was already unlikely that Egypt would be there anyway. The defeat was their third in five matches, underlining a miserable qualifying campaign, and alluding to a realignment of the balance of power in African football – having not failed to qualify for the previous thirty years, Egypt were to be absent from the continent’s top table.
Excuses and theories emerged from everywhere following the defeat, but as realization set in, and as the prognosis was exchanged with friends, attention turned to the future and to the possibilities of renaissance and re-establishment.
Then the disaster happened, and at least 74 bodies were left on the Al Masry turf.
The actions and events of this night appeared to strike a fatal blow to Egyptian football – beyond the societal trauma and the apparent absence of reconciliation in Egypt’s post-revolution community, the tragedy also led to the remainder of the domestic league being cancelled, and to the initial retirement of three key figures from Egypt’s continental dynasty – as Emad Meteb, Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Abou Treika called it a day.
For want and famine they were solitary; fleeing into the wilderness in former time desolate and waste.
Olympic Qualification – Shelter from the Storm
The 2011 CAF U-23 Championship, also doubling up as qualifiers for the Olympics, provided a brief fillip. After winning their group, Egypt lost their semi-final against Morocco, before besting Senegal in the third-place play-off. This win booked their place at London 2012 – the first time since the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 that the nation’s footballers had participated at this event. Despite being drawn with heavyweights Brazil, the international media forecast a positive outlook for the travelling Pharaohs – a collection of exciting youngsters and experienced heads, ready to step up to the bigger stage, and at least ensure progress to the knock out stages.
Common Problems & Familiar Saviours
Egypt’s immediate preparations for the summer were beset by a key common problem, that being the tension and inherent bickering inevitable between Cairo’s top two clubs. While Spain’s triumphant Euro 2012 campaign was forged on a focused (if unsteady) unity between Madrid & Barcelona players, there was no sign of domestic giants Zamalek & Ahly pulling together for the nation’s common good.
The month of July was riddled with complaints and slander, as the Cairene giants seemingly sought to outdo each other in attempts to derail and disrupt Egyptian preparation. Things threatened to come to a head, with Hassan Shehata, formerly Zamalek coach, and Ahly head Hossam El Badry, dissatisfied with Hany Ramzy’s apparently inconsistent decisions about releasing players for club duties. The Cairo derby on the 22nd July proved the nadir, but the clash between Ahly’s Champions League match against Chelsea and Egypt’s Quarter Final against Japan wasn’t the political incident it threatened to be, as Ahly allowed their players to remain with the International squad.
Whilst Olympic Football is, in principle, an U-23 event, rules permit coaches to enlist 3 overage players to support and supplement the youngsters forming the body of the side. Not short of options, Ramzy opted for Ahly trio Mohamed Abou Treika, Emad Meteb, and Ahmed Fathi – the first two players having reconsidered their post-Port Said retirements. Various portions of the media had predicted Amr Zaki’s name being among the three, but the Ahly trio, initially at least, vindicated Ramzy’s decision by blending in successfully with the young side, and proving to be positive influences and beacons of experience for their junior compatriots.
Abou Treika in particular, named as the side’s captain on the 15th of July, was a major asset to the team. A graceful midfielder, loyal to his club side, softly spoken and modest, finally getting his chance to shine on the international stage – the parallels with Ryan Giggs were evident. In missing out on the 2010 World Cup, the Egypt and Ahly legend, such a symbol of hope and unity for his countrymen, could have been forgiven for thinking that his opportunities of performing on the International stage had passed, but finally he had his moment, leading the Pharaohs out in their Olympic adventure.
Unfortunately, Abou Treika’s glorious 22 shirt didn’t make the Olympic cut (squads only featuring 18 players). Thus, fans were treated to the slightly incongruous sight of the great man ambling around as Egypt’s number 5. A tribute to Zidane, we were told; although clearly the Zidane of Real Madrid, rather than the World Cup winning Zidane of France.
Somewhere between Delight & Disappointment
Some quarters had perceived these Games as an ‘opportunity’ for the embattled nation, for its embattled people, and for its embattled football side – fallen Pharaohs with a legacy to sustain. With the opportunity of gold disappearing after Quarter-Final defeat against Japan at Old Trafford, comment and analysis can begin on this pivotal moment, or ‘crucial point’ for Egyptian football.
Despite the campaign beginning and ending with defeat, the 18 men that went to London to represent their nation can return with their heads held high, and offering renewed vigour and optimism for the Pharaohs. Of the squad that secured qualification in Morocco back in 2011, Ahmed El Shennawy, Hossam Hassan, and Ahmed Hegazy made the team of the tournament. The three were also picked to star for Egypt this summer, and they continued to enhance their burgeoning reputations.
Perhaps the Pharaohs’ most exciting prospect is Mohamed Salah of Swiss side FC Basel. Despite entering the tournament with a shoulder injury, he demonstrated, in flashes, what he is capable of: a sweet finish late on against Brazil, an equaliser against New Zealand, and the opener against Belarus suggests that this could well be a man we shall be watching right up to the toppermost echelons of the sport.
El Shennawy and Hegazy were heroic in patches against Belarus, but the ‘shambolic’ defending at the end of the game was an unhappy foreshadowing towards events in the Quarter Final against Japan. The pair, as well as Arsenal prospect Islam Ramadan and Ahly youngster Saad Samir, were seemingly deserted by their composure and nous, and their inexperience showed as the dream was extinguished in Manchester’s Quarter Final.
Despite the crushing defeat to close proceedings, the squad can take a lot from their experiences in Britain. The talent is there, and with a little more experience at the back, and a touch more guile in attack (although Emad Meteb rather than the team’s young stars is to be blamed for some toothless patches) can leave Egyptians relishing the development of a very exciting batch of Pharaohs-in-the-making.
The heroes of the last decade, the El Hadarys, the Gomaas, the Ahmed Hassans, will soon need to be replaced, and this new generation – the Egyptian Olympians – showed enough to suggest that they may well be the men to carry the torch into the future, and hopefully, lead the nation to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. 2012 will always be known as year of crisis and disaster by Egyptians, but the 18 men who traveled to the London Olympics may well ensure that this summer will be viewed as a ‘crucial point’ in the Pharaohs’ fortunes.
Opportunities may follow to make legends of them all.
Follow Ed Dove on twitter.