Politics have found their way into the field of sports for decades, and in many cases some sports events have been turned into political battlefields as a result. However, there have also been other cases when politics in sports has been able to produce benign results. One of these is undoubtedly Egypt’s hosting of the 32nd Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Hosting the football tournament in Egypt came as a pleasant surprise to many Egyptians as well as to others across the African continent. Egypt suffered security issues after the 25 January Revolution in 2011, followed by a wave of unprecedented terrorist attacks after the fall of the Morsi regime in July 2013. As a result, it was a challenge to host the biggest tournament on the continent and one of the biggest in the world in the record time of just five months, as well as to present this most spectacular of all African sports events in a suitably spectacular way.
There were some complaints from football fans that the tickets were overpriced and that the newly introduced fan ID system was too complicated for many more traditional fans, who either claimed that they were unable to afford a ticket for the games or were unable to get through what they called an overly complicated booking system. However, the fan ID system is not an Egyptian invention or some kind of novelty in the sport. Though it was introduced just weeks before the tournament, it is a system that has been applied in almost all major international football events, the last being the 2018 Russia World Cup.
The system requires the ticket buyer to register his national ID online and pay for the tickets through an online transaction or through countless mobile or Internet service-providers spread across the country. The purpose is to filter genuine football fans from the hooligans who have done their best to spoil football activities in this country for almost a decade.
Tragic memories of chaos still lurk in the minds of many Egyptians as a result of such hooliganism. The pinnacle came during the horrific Port Said Stadium massacre in February 2012, when 74 Ahly Club fans were killed by a group of hooligans supporting the opposing team of Al-Masry. This forced the cancellation of the 2011-2012 football season. Following the resumption of football the following year, it was decreed that the attendance of fans would be limited by the Egyptian Football Federation, a provision which it still in effect this year.
This has left the seats of many stadiums almost empty, with the exception of international fixtures when limited numbers of supporters are allowed to attend. The fan ID ticketing system is one of many security precautions that have been taken in preparation for lifting these restrictions on allowing fans to watch their favourite sport live, starting from the upcoming season of 2019-2020.
It is not a secret that some radicals and Islamists have infiltrated almost all the major football clubs, including the Ahly Ultras, the Zamalek White Knights, and the Al-Masry Ultras Green Eagles. Within these groups of football fans, hooligans, jihadists and anarchist groups have emerged, some of them following radical Salafi clerics such as Hazem Abu Ismail, in the case of the White Knights, or the Muslim Brotherhood group in the case of the Ahly Ultras. Such chaos had to cease, and it was necessary to resort to severe action.
If such behaviour cannot be tolerated during the course of a regular football season, there is even less of a reason to tolerate it during an AFCON tournament held in Egypt and broadcast to over 100 countries worldwide. It is safe to say that the organisers led by Egyptian football veteran Mohamed Fadl have done an exquisite job of organising the most memorable African tournament to date.
As a result of these procedures, attendees at this great African spectacle have been able to see the true nature of Egyptian football fans, with these in turn extending their civilised, friendly, and supportive nature not just to the Egyptian national team but also to other participating teams.
Tight security measures were also not only applied to Egyptian football fans but were used for other fans as well. Algerian fans carrying political banners were spotted by security drones used for the first time during this tournament, and they were sent back home after being banned from watching the rest of the event. A similar thing happened to some Moroccan fans that were denied entry for carrying banners with slogans against the Moroccan government or supporting the Polisario Front that seeks independence from Morocco and the formation of what this group calls the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
The plethora of football legends attending the tournament was a sight for sore eyes, with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Nwanko Kanu, and even veteran international coaches such as Jose Mourinho being among the many that attended the matches. Many of them even provided valuable commentary and analysis to the Egyptian TV networks covering the tournament.
There were also criticisms for the performance of the Egyptian national team, especially after its early exit from round 16. Some anti-government activists led by Islamists found an opportunity to attack the government as a result.
But this early exit that followed a weak performance by the Egyptian team is not unusual in a sport like football. What was noteworthy was the media campaign that preceded the tournament stipulating that since it was being held in Egypt, Egypt must necessarily be the winner.
This notion represents a complete lack of sportsmanship, responsibility and realism. It is one thing to motivate, support and energise the Egyptian team and fans to win, but it is quite another to pretend that the title is a done deal and is in Egypt’s pocket even before things start.
The statistics categorically oppose any such notion. Out of the 31 previous AFCON tournaments, only 10 of the hosting countries managed to win the title, which is less than one third of the total. Similarly, in the FIFA World Cup Football Tournament, which has been held 21 times since 1930, only six of the hosting countries have managed to win the title, the last being France in 1998. Even the mighty Brazilian team was humiliated by a 1-7 home defeat when Brazil hosted the 2014 event. But the most striking case is the UEFA Championship, held 15 times up to now and only won three times by the hosting nation.
Statistically, it is a safer bet to bet against the hosting country winning since it is highly unlikely to win the tournament.
Most importantly, Egypt did not fail to send the message it wanted to the world as a result of hosting the tournament. This message is that the Egyptian state is ready, willing and able to live up to the highest standards in organising international events and that the country is open for both business and tourism.
This message of stability could not have been sent in a clearer manner, and this alone is a great victory for Egypt that in a way is much more important than winning a football title alone. In any case, Egypt already holds the record number of wins of the AFCON event, with seven titles to its name.
This positive political message sent by Egypt’s perfect organisation of this year’s AFCON was worth the great efforts exerted in the record time of five months of preparations. Winning the tournament would have been the cherry on the cake, but not doing so does not change the fact that Egypt excelled in presenting itself to the world through its great organisation of the event.
*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 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Politics and football