One country . . . but two contrasting images


— On the face of it, in the aftermath of the Port Said crowd disaster, the future for Egyptian football could hardly appear any more bleak.

The league has been suspended indefinitely for the second time in a year, the football association’s directors have been dismissed and placed under inquiry by the government, stadium security has been exposed as untrustworthy while – almost unnoticed – the national team is absent from the Africa Cup of Nations currently entering its closing stages in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

With no effective FA board in place, who can provide the urgent report into the tragedy demanded by Sepp Blatter, president of world federation FIFA?

Usually, FIFA is very quick to punish with suspension any country where the government meddles in local football business. In the present turmoil, Blatter will doubtless be patient. But only for so long.

The problem is that, with no functioning FA, the Egyptian game has been cast adrift just when its football authorities are most in need of outside, expert guidance.

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri may have felt that he was acting for the best in making a show of action by sacking the FA board. But, most observers of events in Port Said – and those since in Tahrir Square back in Cairo – believe that the finger of blame should be pointed elsewhere and that, whatever their faults, the wrong men have taken the initial hit.

The tragedy, from a football standpoint, has depressing ramifications beyond Egypt.

This is a football-mad country, the first African nation ever to qualify for the World Cup finals (in 1934), boasting some of the continent’s most powerful and passionately-followed clubs in Cairo rivals Al-Ahly and Zamalek, record seven-times national team champions of Africa.

Cairo is also home to the headquarters of the African Football Confederation.

Unfair as it may be, the global projection of television pictures from Port Said has tarnished the image of African football for the rest of the world.

All the old cliches about enormously talented footballers being let down time and again by corrupt and incompetent administrators have been reinforced. Almost as if the 2010 World Cup down in South Africa had never happened.

And yet, sport can be a remarkable force for good, as Blatter noted in his message of condolence on Thursday morning to the then-president of the Egyptian FA, Samir Zaher.

In February last year, Canterbury in New Zealand suffered an earthquake which wrecked the historic heart of the city; yet, last autumn, New Zealand not only went ahead, as planned, with its hosting of the Rugby World Cup but their All-Blacks won it.

Again, in March Japan was rocked, literally, by the devastating combination of an earthquake and subsequent tsunami; yet, four months later, the nation was celebrating its national team’s success in winning the Women’s World Cup in Germany.

Unifying potential

Sport, as has been proven in so many war-ravaged countries down the years, possesses a unique unifying potential. Hence putting its broken football system back together is hugely important for Egyptian sport and it will be offered all manner of help and expertise from around the world, not least from FIFA.

More cynically, the Egyptian political authorities – such as they may be – need to put the country’s football back on its feet. Sport has long served politicians as an important weapon in distracting their peoples from the realities and privations of grinding daily life.

While the world federation is a symbol of derision among many football fans, the blame attaches almost entirely to the dysfunctional political clique at the apex of the pyramid of football power. Further down, FIFA employs some outstanding individuals with a deep understanding of what is needed, in hands-on terms, to provide the educative, health-creative and structural know-how for the development of the game anywhere in the world.

Hence Egypt needs its football and the spirit of unity it can offer as the country tries to find a way forward in the wider world. What better tribute to the fans who died?


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