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Hassan Shehata, a legend of African football

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Hassan Shehata, a legend of African football

He’s respected in every other part of Africa and around the world, but not, Hassan Shehata feels, in Egypt. Osasu Obayiuwana learns more from the man many consider Africa’s best coach.

After etching himself into the pantheon of continental football legends, as the only football manager to achieve the astounding feat of leading a national team to three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) titles, you would assume Hassan Shehata is fulfilled and basking in the adoration of his fellow Egyptians, for whom the “beautiful game” is akin to a religion.

But the 69-year-old man I met, on a bright, sunny May afternoon at the El Hesen (“The Fortress”) Café and Restaurant restaurant, in the Southern Cairo district of Mohandeseen, was anything but pleased with his lot, six years after achieving a feat that is unlikely to be equalled in my lifetime. Or at any time, for that matter.  

“I am respected in every other part of Africa and other parts of the world. But I am not made to feel, at home, that what I achieved is significant,” “When I look back at what I did, I know that it was a big achievement. But now, some [in Egypt] don’t really recognise what I did, especially after the Arab Spring.”

The Arab Spring – which led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, after 30 years in power – as well as its political aftermath, is a subject the former Zamalek striker avoids with a wide berth, making it crystal clear that the discussion of the country’s volatile politics is off-limits.

But Shehata, who firmly nailed himself to the Mubarak mast during the revolution, knows his stance – also adopted by Hossam Hassan, another legend of the African game – caused mighty public upset.

Shehata’s position, which went against the grain of overwhelming demands that Mubarak should resign and face trial for alleged human rights abuses, upset some Egyptians, even those who adored him for his on-field achievements. 

“He has never denied maintaining a good relationship with the former president and supporting him as well, which has been the reason that some people have been against him [in the post Arab Spring years],” says Inas Mazhar, an editor and sports journalist with the Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo, who knows Shehata.

“Egyptians’ views were split between those that did not support Mubarak and those that did. At that time, the anti-Mubarak people had the loudest voice.   

“But those who supported the former president did not hesitate to do so. The Egyptian national team, Shehata, in addition to other sportsmen, public figures, some actors, artists and singers, had the guts to support him publicly, when many others feared to. I met Shehata and members of the team weeks later [after the revolution], and they were quite courageous, in the face of overwhelming public opinion, to insist they were not afraid of supporting the ex-president. In his view, Mubarak had been a passionate supporter of the national team and did not abandon the team, even when they were heavily criticized.”

“Shehata said he was sticking with his opinion of Mubarak, as a man and as a president, and he was not going to change it, for the sake of some people. He loved and respected him because he was always on their side.” 

It is interesting that the fortunes of the Pharaohs, as the national team is known, and Shehata have gone through the same troughs over the last six years.

Since their historic treble, AFCON wins in 2006, 2008 and 2010, both have gone through a rather stormy patch – the Pharaohs unable to qualify for the three AFCON tournaments that have followed – 2012, 2013 and 2015, while Shehata has been unable to replicate his sterling achievements with the national team, since stepping down from the post. Stints with a range of clubs, including Zamalek, his old club, and Qatari club Al-Arabi have not been so successful. But Shehata insists he has not been given a fair chance to replicate his success with the Pharaohs, claiming there has been a politically motivated campaign of calumny against him, since 2011.

“The biblical saying is true, that a prophet is never recognised in his own home. But I do not think that this applies to just me. We have many other cases, such as the late Mahmoud El-Gohary (who managed the Pharaohs to the AFCON trophy in 1998 in Burkina Faso). He wasn’t as respected as he should have been.”

“They have tried to underestimate my achievements. There has been a war against me. Some people try to rubbish what I have achieved, even with local clubs…It is as if everyone wants to forget the fact that I won three African titles in a row for Egypt.

“If I am coaching a club in the national league, I think I have earned the right to be respected,” he said. 

Egypt has hired three national team coaches in the last six years – local Shawky Gharib, American Bob Bradley and now Argentine Hector Cuper, the former Inter Milan, Mallorca and Parma manager. Gharib and Bradley failed to take the Pharaohs to any tournament, a long streak of ill-luck that Cuper is on the verge of ending, as the seven-time champions of Africa will return to the continental stage at the 2017 AFCON in Gabon. 

“Our failure to qualify for the 2012, 2013 and 2015 Nations Cups is directly related to the Arab Spring.There was no focus on football, there was no national championship and the national team needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Replacing a team that has won three African titles is very difficult.”

The involvement of powerful fan groups, particularly those of Al Ahly SC – which has the largest following in Egypt, in the millions – and Zamalek, their city arch-rivals, in the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, not to mention their subsequent clashes with the security forces in the post-revolution years, led to a draconian ban that has kept league matches behind closed doors for five years.

It is a ban I experienced first-hand, when I tried to cover a league game between Ahly and Petrojet in New Cairo. Despite having press accreditation, I was stopped, by a group of heavily armed policemen, from entering the stadium.

“Without fans in the stadium, how can the players perform well?” Shehata asks. “Who do the players have to please, when there are no fans to watch them? Football is about fans and the ball. We need them. But this question [of ending the ban and allowing the fans back to stadia] is not in our hands. It is in the hands of the government, they have to solve this problem.”

What is certainly in the hands of the Egyptian Football Association and indeed, all FAs and Federations across the continent, is ending the preference of hiring European coaches to manage national teams, even when there are qualified locals capable of doing the job. Shehata is furious that European coaches, some with no pedigree or understanding of the African game, are given preference over his colleagues.

“There isn’t that much respect from Federation officials for African coaches. I was upset that the coaches that often win the CAF ‘Coach of the Year’ award are foreign coaches with the national teams, even when African coaches are better…

“After I won the Nations Cup in 2006, I was voted the best coach in the continent. But the second time [in 2008], it was given to Manuel Jose of Ahly, even though it was mentioned that the best coach in the continent should be a national team coach and not a club coach.

“And when I won my third title in 2010, the CAF award was given to Milovan Rajevac, because he qualified Ghana for the 2010 World Cup. But I defeated him in the final of the Nations Cup in Angola.

“I had a discussion with [CAF President] Issa Hayatou at one of these awards and I asked why it is always foreign coaches that are appreciated and named as the best. I also asked Mr Hayatou why Africa is not doing enough to raise the technical level of African coaches and give them the know-how needed to take on high-level positions, even in Europe.”

Anyone having unprecedented success with the Pharaohs, as Shehata did in the recent past, would be wary of seeking a return to the job. How could he possibly equal his feats of the past?

But he says he is ready to return to the national team, if asked by the EFA, which has never expressed any interest in a second coming for Shehata.

“If they really respect my achievements, I would always be in the minds of those that are in charge of the Egyptian FA. If they put my CV with that of others wanting to coach Egypt, who is going to be better than me?  Mine will certainly be the best. But they refuse to even consider me for this job, because if my CV is put with the others, I will be the first choice. So, they exclude me. They put my CV under the table or in the drawers, never on top of it. I do not like talking about this issue, because it makes me feel depressed and disappointed.”

But despite his bitter feelings, he insists that the coaching chapter in his life is far from closed, confirmed by his recent appointment as the manager of Egyptian first division side Tala’a Al Geish. 

“I am a professional coach and I am ready to work any time, whether it’s for a national team or a club. But there are decision-makers. They have to ask and they have to call me. For the future, I will not say that I will stay still. I will not fight for a job. I will not search for a job. Everyone knows who I am and what I can do.”

There is certainly no one, throughout the African continent, that has a single doubt about that. 

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