Egyptian football needs help and is looking to foreigners for that shot in the arm.
The plan is part of a major overhaul of the sport in the wake of the national team hitting a recent rough patch of poor results.
The slide began in February this year when Egypt could not win the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) even though they had reached the final against Senegal.
A month later Egypt failed in their attempt to go to this year’s World Cup in Qatar, again tripping over the final hurdle against Senegal.
This month, Egypt got off to a bad start in their attempt to reach next year’s AFCON, suffering a stunning loss to minnows Ethiopia 2-0, followed by an embarrassing 4-1 defeat to South Korea in a friendly.
Among the consequences, the result of these less than stellar scores has been Egypt dropping from 32nd to 40th place in this month’s FIFA global rankings.
The feeble run was not confined to the national team. Ahly, Cairo’s No 1 football club, lost 2-0 to Wydad of Morocco in the final of the African Champions League staged in May.
In admitting that it was at fault for this dry spell, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) announced earlier this month what it intends to do about it: seek assistance from beyond Egypt’s borders.
“We always say we want to progress like in Europe,” EFA board member Hazem Emam said in a press conference on 16 June. “So, we decided to bring foreign coaches and technicians to help us make a major change.”
Included in the makeover will be to bring in a foreign coach for the Under-23 team ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, a foreign technical director for the EFA, and a foreign expert and consultant to help in developing the Referees Committee. In a subsequent announcement Emam hinted the search for a new national team coach is zeroing in on yet another import.
It probably is not strange that the moment the country’s football took a nosedive, the immediate instinct was to go for the foreign look because of our history of occupation by the British and French. These were not periods of joy but were not all bad. The country picked up some good traits from the ‘white man’ but went by the wayside the following decades.
If Egyptians want to be like foreigners, they have to act like them first. Not just copy their soft power — in the fast foods they eat, what they wear, the music they listen to, the movies and TV shows they watch or the liberal lifestyles they lead.
You want to be like a foreigner, think like one, and that starts with working like one.
We have a long history and we’re proud of it but we depend too much on it, as if time stopped after the Pyramids were built and we’ve been resting ever since.
The country’s monolithic football structure is in definite need of repair, starting with its organization. Currently, as an example, two Cup championships, this year and that of last year, are being played — at the same time.
And whereas most leagues the world over wrapped up the season by the end of May and their players and their families have been relaxing on the beach since, Egyptian league players are still toiling on the field under a blistering summer sun with at least 12 games to go. The league began on 25 October last year and is scheduled to end by 30 August, only to restart in October.
Blame should not be put on the coronavirus; masks and social distancing were done away with a year ago. And in Europe, even though the fixtures are much more congested than here, they finish their seasons on the day they said they would at the start, and give players enough time to recuperate from one season before going to the next.
The EFA is being foresighted in wanting a foreign coach for its U-23 team. The building blocks of any team in any sport start with youngsters. Actually, the EFA should be focussing on players who have yet to reach their teens. A foreign nationwide approach which focuses on children as young as 10 would be great. That is the age in which physical fitness takes root. Without fitness players cannot run the entire 90 minutes of a game or execute any game plan or even the basics of passing, shooting and dribbling.
Refereeing also needs a reckoning. No Egyptian was selected for the upcoming World Cup, the exclusion being a barometer of our adjudicating standard. While the lion’s share of referees in World Cups always goes to Europeans, Egypt has had five in past football showpieces.
The present defining characteristic of refereeing in this country is the tremendous amount of flack referees get from players without reciprocal reprimands. It takes ages for a referee to brandish a yellow or red card to players whose shouting and screaming in their faces goes largely unpunished. Referees argue with players nose to nose as much as players argue with them. And woe to the referee if a player’s hair is messed up after a fall. He gesticulates so wildly you’d think he was shot.
The bottom line is that fresh faces from abroad are being asked to come share with us their expertise. It will cost a pretty penny in a country whose economy, like many others, is being battered as food, gas, and energy prices soar, going up seemingly every other day.
Is it worth it? Detractors say the dollars should go where they are needed more. The claim is football championships do not put food on the table.
It’s a solid argument. But whoever will be coming from abroad will not be staying forever. EFA board member Emam said the transplanted foreigners would have Egyptian assistants who will subsequently take over in the future.
Fair enough, however, how and from where do we recruit these foreigners? You can’t find them in the yellow pages or take out a wanted ad for them. How can we be sure we’re getting the right people who can do the job?
We probably can’t. Egypt has been scammed countless times by foreign coaches brought in by clubs and the national team whose results are rarely better than their Egyptian counterparts but for 10 times the cost.
We will also have to at times swallow our pride. We will have to defer to ‘the other’ even if we can do the exact same thing, if not better.
It is ironic that a Third World country wants to employ workers from the developed world; it’s usually the other way round. Either way, for this EFA rescue mission to work, those who are hired and those being trained must have a symbiotic relationship. Both need something from the other and should be willing to work amicably together to reach their respective goals.
As is said, we shouldn’t want foreigners to provide us with the proverbial fish, but to teach us how to catch them.
We need to be able to do the rest.
The original version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.