Egypt’s military rulers have authorized a lifting of a ban on professional soccer matches in a bid to limit the impact of the two-month-old suspension, prevent an exodus of players and coaches and quell growing unrest among fans.
Egyptian Football Association (EFA) spokesman Azmi Megahed said matches would resume on April 15. He said the league season would last until July 11.
The government and the military banned soccer matches in late January as mass anti-government protests erupted that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11 after 30 years in office.
The military has since been reluctant to authorize a resumption because it feared that the soccer pitch would become a rallying point for continued protests that would undermine its efforts to return Egypt to business as usual and lead it to free and fair elections within six months.
The lifting of the ban came days after the Egypt’s Premier League clubs threatened to refuse to lend their top players to the military’s soccer team that will be competing in this year’s World Military Cup in Brazil.
The threat struck at one pillar of the military’s popularity that has so far earned it the benefit of the doubt in its efforts to rebuild the state and lead Egypt to democracy. The military owes its popularity to its refusal to fire on protesters in the build-up to Mubarak’s ousting, its minimal use of force since the president’s resignation and the fact that it owns at least a quarter of the 16 Egyptian Premier League teams.
With the military in power, Egypt’s five-time World Military Cup-winning team will be playing for more than just the Egyptian military’s honor in the tournament; it will be the equivalent of Egypt’s crowned national soccer team competing in the World Cup, the world’s largest sporting event.
Soccer club executives charged that the military’s concern about its own soccer performance contrasted starkly with its reluctance to allow Egyptian soccer to return to normal. The clubs have repeatedly warned that the continued suspension of professional league matches could ruin Egyptian soccer.
The military’s lifting of the ban on soccer also followed threats by foreign players that they would seek greener pastures if Egypt’s military rulers fail to lift the two-month ban on professional league matches and Egyptian clubs prove unable to live up to their financial commitments.
The loss of foreign players and possibly coaches could severely damage the soccer standing and performance of Egypt, one of Africa’s best performers and one of the few that has been able to fund the acquisition of talent from abroad.
The lifting of the ban addresses one concern among foreign and domestic players alike but leaves controversy over EFA proposals to cap transfer prices and salaries for players and coaches unresolved. The EFA is pushing for the caps in an effort to introduce financial austerity as clubs struggle with the financial fallout of Egypt’s political crisis.
Fans have backed the call for caps, arguing that players earn exorbitant salaries in a country in which half the population lives on $2 a day.
In response to fan criticism, Premier League team ENPPI, which is owned by Egypt’s oil ministry, said it would donate part of Ahmed Elmohamady's transfer fee from English Premier League team Sunderland FC to the families of the more than 300 people who died in the protests that toppled Mubarak.
"It's just a contribution to ease the woes of the families of those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of their nation," ENPPI football director Alaa Abdul-Sadek said.
James M. Dorsey is senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog