After winning the last three Cup of Nations tournaments, an unprecedented feat in the event’s 55-year history, Egypt’s absence from this year’s finals is not as shocking as it appears. From Cairo, Inas Mazhar explains why.
The continent’s football festival will certainly miss the absence of its most dominant team over the last decade. But the flagging fortunes of the Pharaohs are the last thing bothering most Egyptians.
An unbridled passion for the better part of the country’s 85 million people, football had been a convenient tool to distract normally curious minds from questioning the economic, social, and political direction of Egypt, when former President Hosni Mubarak was at the helm.
But the consequences of last year’s popular uprising, which unexpectedly swept Mubarak out of the presidential palace, has meant that far more important issues other than international football results, have taken centre-stage.
After leading Egypt to its last three African titles, erstwhile manager Hassan Shehata, as well as the players responsible for the feat, earned their place as legends in the hearts of Egyptians.
But they quickly turned into villains when Shehata and some players refused to take an active role in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s government.
Regarding their stance as an act of betrayal, the fans clearly expressed their displeasure from the terraces during the final stages of the 2012 Nations Cup qualifying series, which hardly gave them the support required to secure the needed points during the final round of home matches.
Whilst the turbulent political atmosphere in Egypt ensured the team lacked adequate training facilities and the proper environment within which to prepare, many experts believe the team built by Shehata had simply completed its natural cycle of success.
“The team had won three Nation Cup titles in a row, a record. They did not think it was that important to win a fourth,” opined Alaa Abdel Ghani, a well-known critic, who writes for the Al-Ahram weekly newspaper.
“Shehata had no motivation and could not motivate his players. He should have left after winning the trophy for the third time. He did not, and the Egyptian FA could not fire him after all he had achieved,” Ghani continued.
“The team was overconfident and not prepared from the start. The results against Sierra Leone in Cairo (1-1) and the 1-0 loss to Niger in Niamey [both games were played before the 2011 revolution started] effectively sealed their fate,” Abdel-Ghani added.
Egypt’s dominance of the Nations Cup in recent years also gave the players a sense of superiority that allowed complacency to set in, losing them their competitive edge.
And with the political revolution sweeping away the presidential cover of protection on which the team relied, Egyptian football has been forced to chart an uncertain course. Shehata left the national team last June to take charge of club side Zamalek.
Ahmed Hassan, captain of the Pharaohs, confesses that his colleagues were unsettled by the fact that the public, smarting from their attitude during last year’s uprising, had turned against them.
Missing out on the 2012 National Cup tournament denied Hassan the chance to play in a record eight Nations Cup competitions. “The players were always nervous and this had a direct impact on our performance,” Hassan confesses.
Defender Hossam Ghaly, who also captains Al Ahly, feels he and his colleagues were made scapegoats for the sins of the Mubarak government.
“We are the national football team and not the National Democratic Party [the political organ of the deposed Mubarak]. I cannot understand why we were treated with such anger by the public,” says Ghaly.