Looking at this title, you may be thinking ‘football is the last thing that should be on our minds right now’. But I would argue that football in Egypt is one of the finest epitomes of the past and current situations, and will also be a scale on which to judge the success of the revolution.
Indeed, Egyptians only really came out in number three times prior to this January: February 2006, 2008 and 2010, celebrating the African Cup of Nations triumphs. This was crude practice for the revolution; it united people on patriotism and reignited love for one’s country. This love for Egypt was essential in the recent protests where Egyptians silenced any doubts that they do not love their country; they love their country to bits but just didn’t love the system.
The Egyptian Premier League and Premier League B are packed with governmental bodies and petroleum companies. So, in this season’s Premier League we have petrol giants ENPPI and Petrojet. Then we have El-Shourta (The Police), El-Entag El-Harby (Military Arms), El-Geish (The Army) and Haras El-Hodoud (The Coastguards). Each of these six clubs has a very significant budget. The trouble is that the public’s money is spent on these clubs, so for instance, rather than reinvesting what is earned from petrol back into the country, it is invested on football players.
There is nothing wrong with having a boosting football economy, like Germany for instance. But the money spent on football must be relative to the economy of the country, or at least to the economy of the club. By economy of the country, I mean that the average annual salary in Egyptian Premier League is around $120,000 per season. This is in a country where the average annual salary is in the region of $1,000 to $2,000. Egyptian players are also overpriced. Internal Egyptian League transfers are now regularly going into six figure sums, and that’s in Euros and Dollars.
By economy of the club, I mean that these petrol and government clubs do not get fans. ENPPI – who have loaned Ahmed Elmohamady to Sunderland and will win a fortune when they sell him in the summer – pays its employees bonuses to attend games, and still their attendances are a few hundred. Whereas an English club earns around £1 million a match from turnstiles alone, Egyptian clubs cannot boast this kind of revenue. European clubs also sell their merchandise, often worldwide, something yet to be discovered in Egypt. The only real source of income for the Egyptian clubs is TV rights and advertising, but the rest, essentially comes from the country.
Why? The answer is simple. The president of the army clubs is the Defence Minister, and it is the Minister of Petroleum for the petrol clubs. I experienced an interesting scenario with the Transport Minister, who rejected an offer for a player at his club though it meant huge losses for the club, as the player was the highest paid and had fallen out with the coach. The club wanted to get their own back on the player by restricting his progress. The real reason they were able to do so is that it’s not their money. If it was, they would have sold him; ‘but it’s the Ministry of Transport’s money, so who cares’. Another club’s president is an MP, who hired thugs against protesters in one city. He resigned as an MP immediately, and now, after fans protested outside his office, resigned from the club.
I’ve been inundated with calls from players wanting out. One said: ‘there’s no bread for us [footballers] here any more’, because his club announced huge cuts. Another, playing at a petrol club, was offered just a quarter of his remaining wage and told to leave if he can get them any money in return.
The average annual salaries of around $120,000 are simply unmanageable now, it seems. Clubs have started to call for a salary cap which cannot be exceeded for players. Another chairman called for a cap like the one used in the USA, which limits how much clubs can spend on their salaries and transfers all season: each club is given an equal pot of money at the beginning of the season to spend as they please. The latest calls are for a 30 million LE (Egyptian Pounds) annual budget for salaries, so in a thirty-man squad, each player would earn a million LE, or $170,000. Mido has suggested that a cap is a bad idea, and that players who earn over one million LE should pay 10% ‘to the poor’, as he put it!
So, with the money that was in Egyptian football, it is no wonder some sporting personalities were out supporting Mubarak in the rallies. Not least, Hassan Shehata and Shawky Gharib, manager and assistant manager of the national team, were in the front row of the pro-Mubarak demonstrations (pictured). Now, it has also been revealed that the national team’s goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman, who is a police officer, was allegedly torturing prisoners (view here), enough of a reason to make you think twice about supporting Egypt while he’s still in the coaching staff. To those who didn’t know, it finally makes sense why he is the keeper’s coach despite having hardly any relevant experience.
Finally, why is it that these seemingly ‘holy’ players didn’t support the people in the revolution? Mohamed Aboutreika and Ahmed Hassan may have remained quiet and neutral, but why didn’t they join the rallies or at least offer morale-boosting support? Footballers are looked up to, and they have the ability to deliver powerful messages. With their fame and status comes responsibility. Nader El-Sayed and Islam El-Shater, who are not anywhere near as popular as Aboutreika and Hassan, moved many youth by regularly protesting. And Belgian Premier League club Lierse SK, owned by Egyptian businessman Maged Samy, placed a ‘Visit Egypt: Support Freedom’ advert on their t-shirt in an attempt to reboost tourism. These are examples of that responsibility.
Indeed, football was one of the only sources of happiness for Egyptians in the last years! But Egyptians are now experiencing a different type of happiness, albeit complex. The football system clearly needs to be addressed, and many Egyptians feel let down by the Egyptian players and managers, and are right to feel this way.
Ahly fans made a banner in a friendly game last week which read: ‘Wherever you went, we were with you. When we revolted, we couldn’t find you’.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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