Last February, as the Egyptian National Team prepared to begin their most important football match in years, something was different about the country. That night, as eleven players entered the pitch in Gabon, hoping to beat Cameroon, an entire country held still. For the duration of those ninety minutes, there were no political quarrels, economic debates, or protests of any kind. The only noise coming from the entire country was the deafening yells of support for the NT, resonating from every street and corner. For a moment there, we were one country again, united. That is the power of football, and we need to capitalize on it.
Now, before we spark the debate of whether football is an opium for the masses or not, you should know that this is not the purpose of this article. There seems to be an ongoing and controversial issue in Egypt, which is the notion that the ruling regimes have been using sports in general, and football in particular, as a means of distracting the public from whatever oppressive or corrupt actions they were taking. The debate isn’t about whether or not this is true, it’s about, with this knowledge in mind, whether or not we should give football any real importance and attention.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, there is a handful of facts that we all must agree are undoubtedly true. Firstly, football as a sport has numerous health benefits, mainly due to the intense cardiovascular nature of its demands. Secondly, Egyptians of all ages not only adore football, but they are also generally quite skilled at it. Thirdly, when utilized properly, football can be a great source of financial revenue and social development for nations. With all of these factors in mind, we must face and find a solution for the fourth and final fact: the state of football in Egypt, from top to bottom, is simply atrocious.
The problems plaguing football in Egypt are like a cancer attacking the whole body at the same time. At the top, there is nothing but corruption in the industry, starting from the Football Association itself. At the bottom, grassroots football is nearly non-existent, with no efforts taken by the government at all to try and provide suitable playing conditions for the youngest children. In the middle, many would-be players are finding it impossible to break into football teams, as biases and corruption lurk, as always.
If you want to get into football at any administrative or coaching level in Egypt, you need to have connections that will bring you into the fold. Considering the fact that the entire FA is run by former players who control every aspect of the game, if you have not played football at a professional level before, it is impossible for you to have any sort of connection or contact who will be able to help you.
Okay, not a problem, I’ll just take a coaching course and start my coaching career, build from the bottom. The only problem here is that the FA does not actually offer coaching courses to the public. The only way for a person to become a coach is to start working at a football club, something that also requires connections to bring you into the fold. It’s a dead end.
Other than completely blocking out outsiders from entering the industry, the FA is also heavily influenced by politics, with important positions and rankings being handed to former players and figures who are favored by the ruling regime. Add to that the fact that enormous TV deals seem to be made, with no signs of their considerable revenues being reinvested into the sport in any form, and you have a complete and utter corrupt FA. However, as weird as it may sound, the problem isn’t the fact that the FA is corrupt. Corruption and incompetence is everywhere in football. The problem is in the fact that the checks and balances in Egypt are also corrupt, making it impossible for any sort of powerful disciplining of the FA to take place.
In England, after seeing the stagnation of the national team and tracing it back to the FA’s handling of grassroots football, members of Parliament gave the FA a vote of no confidence. This sort of pressure has led to the FA being forced to rethink its strategy, or at the very least, appear to be doing so.
Another prominent issue is players finding it near-impossible to get into teams, as a result of coaches’ stubbornness, as well as the ever-present notion of the “wasta”, the connection that gets you in. Most of the teams hold open-day trials where anyone who believes they are good enough can attend. They are then put through a series of exercises to test their physical state, technical skills, and decision-making skills. That’s what happens abroad.
In Egypt, the coaches simply divide all the applicants into teams and ask them to play a match, for the scouts to watch. According to Yaseen Akram, a trialist at one of the top three teams in Egypt, the scouts then “spent the entirety of the match talking to one another, and at the end of it they chose some random players to progress, mainly the ones who had scored goals”. Not only that, but the club also extended the trial period by a week, for no apparent reason. Upon further investigation, it was quite clear that the motive was purely financial. “The entry ticket to the trial cost 10 pounds, and hundreds of people come to every trial, so extending it meant more money for the club,” Akram explains. “Simply put, if you don’t have a ‘wasta’, either by dint of administrative or business connections in the club, or on the footballing side, such as if you were the son of a former player, then you won’t get in.”
Despite all of this, the main problem facing football in Egypt is how grassroots football is handled. In a country such as Egypt, where a large majority of kids (boys, mainly) are raised with a ball at their feet, it would make sense for the FA to invest in systems and procedures that work to properly nurture children at the youngest age and teach them the right way to play football. Through this process not only will the FA have the greatest chance of developing the best possible players to represent the national team at some point, it will be able to ingrain or create its own football philosophy that runs from top to bottom, creating a footprint that will last for ages. The mesmerizing football that the Brazil 1970 team played still inspires Brazilian coaches to aspire for beautiful football from their teams to this day, and the Catenaccio style of Italian teams still ensures that they have the one of the sturdiest defenses in the world. Egypt should aim to replicate that.
Obviously, what I am asking is not easy to do. It does not happen overnight. It is a long-term process, albeit one with definite success waiting at the end of it. The problem is the FA does not seem to be doing anything at all to develop grassroots football. The FA is not building new pitches in impoverished areas. The FA does not scout for the best talent in the youngest age groups. The FA does not develop or encourage coaches that will go out and look for this talent and nurture it. As a result, many children go to the streets, ball in hand, rocks for goalposts, and they play. They play and play and become incredible at football. They reach unparalleled levels of technical skills, but as they grow up, the realization hits them that football is taking them nowhere, and the dream, along with the huge potential it carries, dies an agonizing death.
It shouldn’t be this way. Football pitches and schools should be everywhere. Talented kids should be getting opportunities at clubs. Even the less-talented children should be getting opportunities to play in amateur clubs. I am not saying that everyone should make it as a professional, I’m not deluded. I’m simply saying that football should be used fully for all of its potential. Football has the potential to be a social, economic, and educational development tool, and our FA is not taking any steps to get it to that level.
Luckily, there are some people who are. Hazem Emam, the distinguished former player, identified this problem with grassroots football in Egypt and is trying to do his best to help out. Emam started the Hazem Emam Foxes Football Academy (Link: https://www.facebook.com/HazemEmamFoxes/).
The academy has its own training facilities but it sends scouts everywhere in Egypt, especially impoverished or distant and suburban areas, to set-up open days. The scouts then identify the best talent in these areas and offer them the opportunity to come and train at the academy, with a career in football being a potential reward. More so, the academy tries to open and create set pitches in these impoverished areas for the residents to take advantage of. Support this initiative.
Before being commercialized and used for political gains, football was a game for children. It should still be. We can make it. It’s a huge problem, and I am under no illusion that the large extent of corruption makes it almost impossible to solve it easily. The thing is, we do not have to change the entire system. We do not have to revamp the entire institution. We can make small changes, like Hazem Emam is doing, that slowly take us to where we want to be. There are a lot of initiatives in Egypt that are aiming to do what Hazem Emam is doing, but they need support. They need our support. We need to raise awareness for these initiatives and try to help them in any way we can. No matter how little the change we make may be, it’s still change. And that doesn’t just apply to football alone.