It is often said that a week is a long time in politics, but many are not aware that the same thing could easily be said of sport. A stark difference in mood, attitude and support for Egypt’s National Football Team has become apparent in the matter of just one week.
Between 15 June, when the team played its first World Cup game against Uruguay, to 19 June, when it played against Russia, there was a complete shift in attitude towards the team, from total support to complete disdain and even anger.
Backed by a massive campaign on the sports networks prior to the World Cup and bolstered by the amazing form of some of Egypt’s key players, especially Egyptian Liverpool star striker Mohamed Salah, the public entered into a frenzied state of anticipation for a great football campaign to come in the World Cup in Russia.
Over the more than nine months since Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup in October 2017, the media had placed enormous pressure on the national team members, with massive, if over-optimistic, predictions of their qualifying for the higher rounds of the World Cup, if not winning it.
The squad was called the “Legion,” the “Warriors” and the “Battalion,” especially in the weeks leading up to the competition. For some, the national team seemed to be like an actual battalion shipped to the battlefront of the war taking place in the world of football. The entire event was hugely politicised by both officials and the media.
Unfortunately, days after its arrival in Russia, the Egyptian media, especially that publishing online, started spreading rumours about the team’s status, even parroting false news stories spread by anonymous sources from the international media about the team without validating these sources. It became a race among Egyptian Internet news outlets to publish as much news as possible, including rumours, just to increase online traffic, or what is known as “click bait”.
These rumours included negative reports about Salah’s health after his injury during the Champions League final, as well as about celebrities meeting with team members in their hotel, which had bad ramifications for the entire team.
Football has a long history of being politically manipulated by governments, the media and politicians worldwide, as happened in the 1934 tournament in Italy, for example, which witnessed Italian dictator Mussolini’s attempts at exploiting it for political ends.
Today, the media has tried to suggest that a good performance by the Egyptian football team in the World Cup will somehow increase the country’s welfare.
The spectacle has been presented as if the fate of the nation depended on the results of the Egyptian team in the World Cup, ludicrous since Brazil and Argentina, both of which have star-studded teams, are on the verge of bankruptcy.
Many economically advanced states do not have football teams to speak of, including Singapore, Canada and Finland. Tying the fate of the nation to the results of its football team is naïve in the extreme and has generated very negative ramifications.
After the Egyptian team’s exit from the tournament, Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group supporters and their affiliates went into a frenzy, gloating over the Egyptian team’s defeat and then calling for the resignation of the government and the president after trying to manipulate the discontent among Egyptian football fans.
The call was less than a fortnight before the fifth anniversary of the 30 June Revolution that ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambitions to dominate Egypt.
It was pathetic attempt to capitalise on public anger at failure in a sports tournament, claiming that this somehow represented the failure of the Egyptian state.
The Islamists’ social-media supporters overlooked the fact that Egypt is not the only team exiting the World Cup, as 15 other countries have also had to exit from the first round, including Germany.
However, hardly anyone is calling for the resignation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or any of the other 15 heads of government or of state.
Star-studded teams such as European champions Portugal, twice World Cup winners, and last time’s runner-up Argentina, also exited from the tournament at the same time as Egypt.
Poor performances can occur in all great teams, and Egypt, seven times African Cup champions and last time’s runner-up, is no different.
While this is not an excuse for the team’s poor performance, it does reveal the mistake of blaming the entire country for it, especially as the Islamists were joined by the same political and media figures who had upped the ante about Egypt’s prospects in the World Cup.
Meanwhile, another assortment of great Egyptian athletes was performing great deeds in the Mediterranean Games held in Tarragona, Spain, winning 45 medals including 18 golds.
However, these great individual achievements were hardly covered by the Egyptian sports networks, which have spent most of their time broadcasting analysis about the failure in the football World Cup.
It may be time to learn the lessons of Egypt’s participation in this tournament on all levels, especially from the media coverage and political manipulation, in order to avoid them in the future.
This will enable Egypt to prepare for the next World Cup on a more professional basis and attain a better performance.
Football, the beautiful game, is loved by billions across the world, and this is certainly the case for the Egyptian people, who see it is as a source of joy and happiness.
For the love of the game, the media and politicians should handle it more carefully, while at the same time making sure that whatever happens in the game stays in the game and does not grow to larger proportions.
After all, football is a sport, and even if Egypt won the World Cup, this would not solve the country’s problems.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: For the love of the game