CAIRO – The nexus of politics and soccer is not a new one.
In most nations, the passion for one’s team is unifying force, a nationalistic Super Glue which politicians have long tried to use to their advantage.
When Barcelona beat Manchester United in the European Champion’s League in May, it wasn’t just a victory Spain’s second biggest city, it was an affirmation of Catalonia’s autonomy and supremacy.
In that sense, Egypt is no different.
After their victory, Egyptian fans poured into the streets, playing drums, swinging home-made flamethrowers, and blocking traffic. The public disorder was tolerated by a regime that is more used to seeing strikes for wages and benefits, these days, than outpourings of national pride.
Egyptian authorities “understand that football is the religion of the people. They want to show they care and get some of the credit,” says Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem. Through-out the run-up to the game, the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak made a point of presenting itself as the patron of Egyptian soccer. The president’s encouraging visits to the team prior to Saturday’s match were widely covered by the state media. The authorities also reportedly promised each Egyptian player $300,000 if their team won.
The match on Saturday was part of a long and vicious rivalry. When Egypt beat Algeria in a similar game 20 years ago, fights broke out afterwards and an Algerian player blinded an Egyptian supporter with a bottle.
This time, the hostilities started on the Internet. Insults were traded, team photos doctored, and mocking songs composed; then hackers started crashing and defacing the other country’s websites. Algerian hackers attached a star of David to the Egyptian flag on the Egyptian Football Association’s website—implying (not too subtly) that Egypt has become Israel’s puppet. Egyptian fans retaliated with the message: “Prepare yourself for 11 more martyrs.” Algeria is known, because of its bloody war of independence, as “the land of a million martyrs.”
Egyptian TV talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists reported breathlessly on the upcoming confrontation. “The way it was pumped up in the media was absurd,” says Hani Shukrallah, the editor of the Arabic newspaper Al Shurouq. Cheering on the national soccer team, he say, “is what Egyptian nationalism boils down to now — it’s empty of all real content.”
But if Egyptian nationalism has become ideologically bankrupt, it remains emotionally volatile. When the Algerian team arrived in Cairo, the team bus was attacked by rock-hurling Egyptian fans. Windows were shattered and three Algerian players reportedly injured. Videos of the incident surfaced online, but the Egyptian media insisted that the Algerian team had damaged their own bus, and faked their injuries. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) launched an investigation but allowed the game to continue.
President Mubarak didn’t go to the match itself. The president’s health is reportedly frail, and he tends to avoid prolonged public appearances. But his sons Alaa and Gamal were in attendance. At key moments during the game, the cameras cut to Gamal, who many believe is preparing to take over the presidency from his father. Later, the younger Mubarak told the press that the joy of the street celebrations was evidence of Egyptians’ “sense of belonging to their country.”
Other lamented that the Egyptian public could seemingly so easily forget its grievances against the 28-year-old Mubarak regime. The blogger Zenobia wrote: “It is very sad because it will be much better if I had heard those football fans screaming: ‘We Want better education, We Want better health care system, We Want clean water and clean streets, We Want better salaries and better food, We Want democracy, We want our rights back.’”
The two Arab countries will meet for a deciding World Cup qualifying game in Sudan on Wednesday Nov. 18.