Egypt’s beautiful game is in an ugly state these days. Already marred by deadly violence and bitter infighting in recent years, a series of unseemly squabbles among the sport’s top leadership last week plunged the game into deeper disarray – just four months before the football-mad nation of 100 million is to host the Africa Cup of Nations
Egypt replaced Cameroon as host last month after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) decided in December that the central African nation was not ready to host the 24-team tournament. A record seven-time champion, Egypt last hosted the tournament in 2006. It was selected ahead of South Africa to host the competition for the fourth time.
The honour of hosting the continent’s prime football competition has been stained in recent weeks though by local developments that include a top team deciding to boycott all meetings of the country’s football association, a state of affairs that threatens to cast a dark shadow on the June 15 to July 13 tournament.
Unfortunately, disgraceful scenes in Egypt’s beloved game are nothing new.
In 2012, Egypt's football scene was jolted by the death of more than 70 supporters of Al Ahly, the Cairo club that is arguably Egypt's biggest, in a massive post-match riot in the coastal city of Port Said. Three years later, about two dozen fans of Zamalek, Al Ahly's crosstown rival, were killed outside a suburban Cairo stadium in a stampede sparked by police firing tear gas.
Following the Port Said tragedy, fans were banned from attending matches. They have recently been allowed back, but only in limited numbers.
More recently, the Egyptian Football Association and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah had a public spat about the federation illegally using images of the star striker in advertising, something that the Egypt international said could jeopardise his lucrative contracts with global sponsors.
Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer last season, also publicly criticised the association over its management of Egypt’s disastrous World Cup campaign in Russia last year, when the Pharaohs lost group matches against Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia before crashing out. In particular, he complained that fans and TV reporters were allowed up to his hotel room ahead of matches and the team was forced to travel economy class.
The turmoil continues.
On Saturday, Al Ahly said it would lodge an official complaint with CAF and the National Olympic Committee against the Egyptian Football Association for inviting Zamalek’s chairman, Murtada Mansour, to a meeting of club representatives.
A pro-government lawmaker and one-time judge, Mr Mansour is widely reviled for his public bullying and constant threats to release voice recordings allegedly touching on the integrity of his rivals.
CAF suspended him late last year for saying the election of its chairman, Ahmad Ahmad, was corrupt. The Olympic Committee sanctioned him for his violation of its values and ethics. Mr Mansour says neither body has jurisdiction over him and threatened to throw the Cairo-based CAF out of Egypt.
Al Ahly says the Egyptian Football Association’s invitation to Mr Mansour breached those suspensions. Al Ahly also decided after an emergency meeting of its board to boycott all meetings of the association, and to ignore any decisions made at the recommendation of Mr Mansour.
It has also decided to boycott competitions organised by the Union of Arab Football Associations, which is chaired by Saudi Arabia’s Turki Al Sheikh, who until recently was the kingdom’s top sports official but is now in charge of cultural activities and entertainment.
That decision stemmed partly from an incident during Wednesday’s federation meeting during which numerous media reports suggested Mr Mansour insulted representatives of Al Ahly, taunting them about what he alleged were bribes they received from Mr Al Sheikh.
Al Ahly’s delegate walked out the meeting in protest, while Mr Mansour and the association’s vice chairman Ahmed Shobeir, a retired Egypt international and an Al Ahly stalwart, had a shouting match.
But the antipathy runs deeper than Wednesday’s fracas, rooted in part in Mr Al Sheikh’s short-lived appointment as honorary chairman of Al Ahly last year, a role he appeared to take more seriously than the ceremonial title warranted. Mr Al Sheikh spent millions on new signings and renewing players’ contracts before falling out with the club’s elected chairman Mahmoud Al Khateib, who publicly voiced his opposition to Mr Al Sheikh’s interference in the club’s affairs.
Mr Al Sheikh angrily quit the honorary position and bought a top-tier club he re-named Pyramids, using his deep pockets to turn the franchise into a frontrunner in the Egyptian league while continuing to publicly deride Al Ahly, and Mr Al Khateib in particular, for supposedly taking financial advantage of him.
The boycott of pan-Arab competitions, Al Ahly said, was in response to “insults” of its board members by Mr Al Sheikh. Al Ahly also vowed not to play any more league matches without its fans present, a stand that places the club on a likely collision course with the country’s powerful security agencies, which have the final say on match attendance.
If all of this turmoil is starting to feel repetitive, blame can be laid at the feet of the country’s football association, says Karim Ramzy, a prominent host of a football talk show aired by a private channel.
“Any student of Egyptian football realises that this crisis is a repeat of near annual crises,” he said. “We are dealing with a federation that does not have fixed regulations with which to run competitions.”
Mr Ramzy said he could not rule out the cancellation of the top-tier competition to allow preparations for the African tournament to proceed smoothly.
Across Egypt meanwhile, fans and critics alike are taking pot-shots at the nation’s football leadership.
"You, all football parties in Egypt, are shooting yourselves in the foot," top football critic Hassan El Mistikawi wrote Sunday in the daily Al Shorouk. "Do you really think that you can walk with your feet missing?"