Months have now passed and the Egyptian National Football League is still suspended due to the coronavirus.
Sports-related activities all over the world have been suspended, and international sports events like the Olympic Games that were supposed to be held in Tokyo, or the European Nations Cup, have also been postponed until further notice for the same reason.
As a major sports fan, the suspension of football and other games has constituted another hit by the coronavirus to the habits of my daily life, and the lives of millions of others. It is true that while all sports activities have been suspended in Egypt by government decision, football is the one sport that has a special significance on the cultural and economic levels.
Over the past few weeks, there has been talk about bringing life back to its normal pace among the authorities in Egypt. It is indeed no secret that football is a dimension of the daily lives of many Egyptians. It is very difficult to come across an Egyptian person who does not know the Ahly and Zamalek football teams or does not identify with or support one of them, even if that person is not a committed football fan.
Bringing this dimension back to people’s lives through resuming football activities is certainly a factor that will help to bring daily life back to its normal pace. Football sometimes can be seen as a mere hobby or a petty interest used by people to fill their time. But the fact is that if a game can attract the attention of millions, create social groups and solidarities, promote an industry worth billions of pounds, and stir up feelings of identity, then its influence on people’s lives should not be taken lightly.
Yet, there is still the lethal threat of the coronavirus and all the precautions it requires us to undertake in order to minimise its negative effects on daily life. These precautions have helped over recent months to maintain a low level of infection in the country, especially if measured against the overall population of Egypt. However, resuming football activities would somehow contradict some of those precautions.
Egypt has relied on a policy of social distancing to counter the spread of the virus, but football is a tool of social proximity and not of distancing. The conflict between taking precautions and resuming an activity that implies large-scale social gatherings like football has put the decision of whether to allow it to restart in the government’s hands. Entities that are part of the football scene in Egypt, whether the Football Association, the clubs that play or even the sponsors, have all withdrawn from the decision-making, leaving the final call to the vision of the government.
Egypt is not the only country facing such a decision. Germany, for example, the first country to make the decision to resume its national football league games on 16 May, had to wait for the government’s approval since the decision was beyond the football industry. Egypt has its own specificities when it comes to the manner in which football is administered.
Resuming football under the threat of the coronavirus requires the institutional orchestration of more than one state authority. There is a committee headed by the prime minister with the aim of implementing policies to counter the virus. However, football has been bureaucratically complicated in Egypt, specifically since 2011, and making any decision to restart it would include the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Youth, the military, which own the majority of stadiums, various security institutions and finally the prime minister himself. Regardless of how complicated this grid may seem to be, resuming football depends on its working successfully.
Under these circumstances, the decision to resume football activities in Egypt seems to be a moral one. Yes, there are serious risks if the suspension is cancelled, but there are also vast interests in the football sector, which is one that intersects directly with the livelihoods of thousands if not millions of people. Yet, at the same time, such a decision could also threaten the lives of millions. It is difficult to base any decision on a policy or strategy, because in the end we really don’t know enough about the virus. It would be very difficult to implement social distancing on a football pitch.
The question arises of whether we will ever play football again until we have figured out a cure for the virus.
The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly