When it comes to preparing for a sporting event, most coaches demand focused training. For Egypt’s Olympic soccer team, the build-up has been more about avoiding shooting off the field than practicing on it.
All but two of the 18-member squad are signed with clubs at home, where the professional league hasn’t played since a February riot left more than 70 people dead. The clashes, the worst soccer violence in Egypt’s history, marked a year after former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a mass uprising. Since then, league matches across the Arab world’s most populous nation have been suspended as officials feared a repeat.
“It’s a hard situation in Egypt, even in my team,” coach Hany Ramzy, 46, said in an interview in London, where his players arrived this week for the games and play Brazil tomorrow at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. “We try to keep our players in good physical and technical shape but it’s not easy. They stopped the league in Egypt so it’s difficult.”
Of the 16 countries participating in the men’s soccer competition, none has endured more violent political upheaval than Egypt over the past year and a half. Unable to play fixtures at home, Ramzy took his team to play matches in Uruguay and France before the local soccer authorities said they could host opponents in Egypt behind closed doors.
Egyptians are fanatical about the sport. The national team is a record seven-time winner of the Africa Cup of Nations and was the first from Africa to play in a World Cup.
The country’s two biggest clubs, Al Alhy and Zamalek, are also the most-successful teams in Africa, winning the Egyptian league 47 times and taking 11 African championships between them. Matches between the Cairo pair are screened lived across Africa and the Middle East and draw capacity crowds of 75,000.
Gamal Abdel-Fattah, a 28-year-old plumber who backs Zamalek, said the Mubarak regime used the power of soccer to divert attention from what was going on in the country.
“Now, we could really use something to help us forget the mess that’s been developing since the revolution,” he said.
Al Ahly supporters were at the forefront of the protests against Mubarak and also subsequent rallies against the military, according to Louisa Loveluck, an Egypt researcher at King’s College London’s International State Crime Initiative.
“Cairo’s main two teams have got a huge amount of quite militant supporters who can be mobilized and put on very visually arresting support,” Loveluck said in a telephone interview. “Al Ahly ultras were at the forefront of pitched battles with security forces. The power change offered a chance to confront the forces that were their nemeses.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi was elected the country’s president last month, taking over from a military council that ruled since Mubarak’s ouster. The two sides, however, are locked in a political tug-of-war that has stunted efforts to revive the nation’s economy after the uprising.
The new government has yet to say when matches will officially resume after the league was suspended because of the violence at the soccer stadium in Port Said. At the match, Al Ahly fans fought with those of local team Al Masry. Weapons included knives, swords, clubs, stones, bottles, and fireworks, according to Egyptian media reports.
“Why does everything in this country have to turn ugly?” said Nasser Shehab, 24, an Al Ahly fan and waiter at a street side café in the poorer Cairo neighborhood of Dar el-Salam. “It’s just a game, but now it’s become part of the politics.”
What’s more, Egypt’s senior national team will miss consecutive Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 1968 after being held 1-1 by the Central African Republic in a qualifying match. It was forced to play the home match of the two-game series behind closed doors last month because the countries stadiums have yet to be declared safe.
FIFA, the sport’s governing body, said it doesn’t have a time frame for when matches will be allowed again.
“This is an internal Egyptian matter,” FIFA said in an e-mailed statement. “However, FIFA has contacted the EFA to get clarity and information regarding the situation and to properly assess it.”
Egypt is a 50-1 underdog in the games, where only South Korea, Honduras and United Arab Emirates have worse odds among the 16 teams in the tournament. The odds mean a successful $1 bet on Egypt would bring in $50 plus the original stake. Brazil is the favorite with U.K. bookmaker William Hill, at 6-4.
Ramzy, whose team features 15 players under 23 and three over-age players in keeping with Olympic soccer rules, is trying to keep soccer and politics separate in London.
The coach played a 124 times for the national team and was Egypt’s most-expensive player in 1994. He agreed to oversee the team two years before the start of protests against Mubarak.
“I keep my players away from the political situation,” Ramzy said at London’s Wembley Stadium where the soccer final will be played on Aug. 11. “We don’t talk about politics because it’s kind of confusing. I keep my players away from all this old regime, new regime stuff.”
Without matches to play, Ramzy called Egypt’s players together months in advance of the games, asking them to train everyday as though they would at their clubs. Ramzy said his team knows performances can play a part in healing the nation.
“We have to show the entire world that we’re still alive,” he said. “We have some young guys that really love this country and this gives us a big motivation to play in London.”