Controversial Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata is determined to stay in his job despite criticism of his support for deposed President Hosni Mubarak and calls for his resignation.
“I have great achievements with the national team as I won three successive African championships” Shehata, who maintained close personal ties to Mubarak and his sons Gamal and Alaa, told Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida. “I won’t quit leading the team and I will stay until the end of my deal with the Egyptian Football Association” (EFA).
Three weeks of mass protests in Egypt that last week forced Mubarak from office after 30 years in power are reverberating in Egyptian soccer. Soccer fans played a key role in the toppling of the authoritarian Egyptian leader.
“The fact that some of the protestors were parts of organized groups played an important role at critical points. The example that best springs to mind is on 2 and 3 February, when the protestors were attacked viciously by regime thugs—the Muslim Brotherhood and organized football fan groups... played a key role in defending (Cairo’s Tahrir) Square, which helped to turn those in the square from a mass of individuals into a cohesive group able to defend itself," said Ihab El-Sakkout of Oxfam, a global non-governmental organization.
Many of those organized fans, supporters primarily of crowned Cairo soccer club Al Ahly SC, which in a country of more than 80 million boasts 50 million supporters, take issue with Shehata, a storied and highly successful coach and former player, for his unambiguous support for Mubarak while they and some players and coaches were protesting on the streets of the Egyptian capital. Some fans are demanding that Shehata be fired.
Al Ahly’s Portuguese coach, Manuel Jose Da Silva apologized this week for not being able to donate blood to victims of clashes with security forces and supporters of Mubarak. Some 365 people died in the protests, according to the Egyptian health ministry.
“I am sorry that I can't participate in the campaign as I am too old now. This is great work by Egyptians after the revolution,” the 64-year-old coach was quoted by Al Ahly’s official website as saying.
Shehata defended his support for the Egyptian leader, telling Al Jarida that “I supported Mubarak in the demonstrations to calm the sport’s atmosphere in Egypt and to let the league come back again, so I wasn’t against the protestors.”
His statements in favor of Mubarak have earned him a prominent place on a blacklist of prominent Egyptian celebrities that supported the former president. The blacklist cites Shehata for going as far as getting on top of a car to demand that Mubarak remain in office for years to come.
The list also includes Al Zamalek managers Ibrahim and Hossam Hassan, who allegedly led a protest against the anti-government demonstrators chanting pro-Mubarak slogans.
Al Zamalek, Al Ahly’s archrival, traces its history to support for British rule in the first half of the last century and prides itself on its support for the monarchy that was overthrown in 1952. The club’s management supported Mubarak’s efforts to maintain a sense of normalcy amid the turmoil even though members participated in the protests.
The list also cited prominent players Mahmoud Abdel Razek Fadlallah (Shikabala), Ahmad Hossam Mido and Wael Jum'a for trying to persuade protesters to go home. Mido appeared on Egyptian television during the protests to demand Mubarak’s resignation.
Mubarak’s resignation split his opponents. Some argued in favor of ending the protests and giving the military, which temporarily is running the country, the benefit of the doubt. The military has pledged to restore democracy within six months. Others argued that the protests should continue until all demands had been met.
The protests forced the suspension of all Egyptian professional matches. The EFA earlier this week cancelled this year’s Egypt Cup.
EFA president Samir Zaher is scheduled to meet Premier League team officials on Sunday to discuss a resumption of matches.
“We will hold a meeting with the clubs’ officials to agree on resuming the competition and arranging some details such as the timing of matches, location and referees,” Zaher told CNN.
The suspension has prompted concern that Egypt’s performance in the African Cup of Nations could be affected. Egypt, which this year underperformed, is scheduled next month to play South Africa. The EFA is considering requesting that the match be postponed. A loss to South Africa would knock Egypt out of the tournament.
Shehata said he had been approached by a number of Gulf states but had rejected lucrative offers. Several Gulf states are looking or are on the verge of looking for new coaches after Middle Eastern teams failed to perform in last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar.
Omani newspaper Al Shabiba reported that the Omani football federation was in discussions with Shehata, who led Egypt to the African championship wins three times in the last five years. Oman wants Shehat to assist in professionalizing the game in the Gulf state.
Shehata has in the past been criticized privately for mixing sport and religion. The coach insists that players wanting to join the national team pass a religious litmus test as well as display soccer skills.
“Without it, we will never select any player regardless of his potential,” Sheheta says. The coach dumped a talented player for visiting a nightclub rather than a mosque. “I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God,” he says.
James M. Dorsey authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog