The talk in Egyptian soccer focuses these days on financial austerity and corruption rather than performance on the pitch that remains empty with professional league matches suspended since anti-government protests erupted late January.
The shift in focus was prompted by a call by the Egyptian Football Association to cap transfer-pricing and the salaries of players and coaches.
The proposal has inadvertently reinforced the focus on corruption sparked by the military-backed campaign to clean out the most corrupt elements of ousted President Hosni Mubarak that is drawing the top of Egyptian soccer management into its orbit.
Opponents of the capping such as Al-Zamalek FC striker Amr Zaki and Ismailia SC’s Shadi Mohammed warn that caps will only strengthen corruption involving wealthy businessmen paying players under the table to play for a certain club.
The allegations of corruption wracking Egyptian soccer are particularly painful for Al-Ahly SC, the crowned Cairo club that boasts some 50 million fans in a country of 80 million largely due to its proud history. Al-Ahly SC was the first soccer club established in the early 20th century by Egyptians, and for Egyptians, serving as a meeting ground for opponents of the country’s British colonial rulers.
The club chairman Hassan Hamdy is suspected of corrupt practices in cohorts with Yasser Mansour, one of Egypt’s wealthiest businessmen, whose financial largesse is believed to have attracted players to the team. Mansour is being investigated by prosecutors for allegedly having benefited from close ties to the Mubarak regime.
At one point, Yasser’s brother Mohammed served as Mubarak’s transport minister. The brothers also have family ties to former tourism minister Zuheir Garana and former housing minister Ahmed Maghrabi, both of whom have been arrested on charges of corruption.
Al-Ahly’s predicament is reinforced by the fact that Hamdy doubled as the head of the government-owned Al-Ahram advertising department, which allowed him to funnel lucrative advertising and sponsorship opportunities to his team. One such contract is Vodafone’s two-year, $10 million sponsorship of Al-Ahly.
The club’s predicament comes in handy for Ibrahim and Hossam Hassan, brothers and members of the board of Zamalek. Fans are demanding their resignations due to the brothers' support for Mubarak and their alleged association with corruption.
Hossam described the brothers earlier this week as victims of the Mubarak regime’s corruption, noting that Hamdy favored Al-Ahly in the distribution of opportunities generated through Al Ahram. His allegations are supported by other soccer officials such as the Dutch coach of Ismailia, Mark Wotte.
Soccer analysts—some of which were actively involved in the protests that toppled Mubarak—concede that support for the president among some segments of the soccer community cannot simply be reduced to vested economic interest. Mubarak’s positioning—like that of most Arab autocrats—as a father-figure meant that some in the soccer community saw him as exactly that.
Embattled Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata “knew that he had everything to lose, particularly the support of the fans,” many of whom played active and important roles in the anti-Mubarak protests, one analyst said. “Yet he stuck to his insistence that the president be treated with dignity.”
Similarly, some players could not bring themselves to denounce their "'father" publicly.
“Religion is no longer the opium of the people, its football,” said an Egyptian activist, arguing that Mubarak and his sons reinforced the notion of the father-figure by riding on the coattails of the Egyptian national team’s success as 10-time African champions.
James M. Dorsey, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog