“Football is the most important of the less important things in life” Nils Liedholm once told Carlo Ancelotti. A philosophy that the five times Champions League winner — twice as a player, and three times as a manager — considers healthy in this era of modern football. Is it though one of the less important things in life ? In Egypt, it used to be one of the most important, no longer was, and slowly returning back to its throne.
Chapter 1: Love
Sitting behind your TV you might think that it’s just the 90 minutes, but the appetizer and the dessert is what makes the main dish so special. Matchday, the greatest experience in football. A Cairo international stadium ready to implode after people who even didn’t have tickets got in and sat between the seats. A Lack of any parking places nearby the stadium, Youssef Abbas street rocking with supporters, and of course how can you forget the pre-match meal at Smiley’s Grill or El-Shabrawy. To some this might sound gibberish, to others it was their holy grail.
Inside the stadium it was Valhalla. The introduction of the ultras movement in 2007 improved the atmosphere inside the stadiums. More people were interested in attending the games, and the rivalry between Al-Ahly and El-Zamalek grew as a result despite the dominance of Al-Ahly who were led by their historical manager Manuel Jose. The quality of the league made it an attraction to viewers all over the country, even the ones who weren’t interested in football would know when there’s an important match going on.
In Africa they dominated, Al-Ahly won the CAF Champions League three times in that period but it’s the national team who struck gold. Hosting the African cup of Nations in 2006, they managed to surpass Cameroon in the winners records— Remember the sleeveless Cameroon kit in AFCON 2002 ? — then they proved themselves worthy of the throne with two more cups in 2008 and 2010. Three in a row made them the only African team to reach that feat.
Possibly the greatest Egyptian national team not to qualify to a World Cup. The World Cup qualifiers was the taboo word around the country, tickets for the defining game against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers were more worthy than Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. Egypt had to beat Algeria by three or more goals to qualify, it would have been the first time since Italia 90'. Amr Zaki opened the scoring in the third minute, but it took Egypt another ninety minute to score the second. At 2–0 Egypt and Algeria were level on everything and a tiebreaker would take place. In the 96th minute Mohamed Barakat had the chance to write his name in history but he will always remember that miss. A tiebreaker ensued and to determine the match venue both teams had to select a country other than their own. Algeria chose Tunisia and Egypt chose Sudan. Sudan was drawn in the lottery and Al Merreikh Stadium was to host the tiebreaker. Algeria won by a single goal and qualified to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Egypt failed to qualify but the footballness was at its peak. It was all that people talked about, it united them, made their miserable life bearable. It was the Romeo to their Juliet.
Chapter 2: Death
At the end of Romeo and Juliet both of them die. Egyptian Football died and was waiting for its resurrector. With the Egyptian revolution in 2011 Egypt failed to qualify for the 2012 AFCON in Gabon.
Fast forward to the 1st of February 2012, I got a call from my grandfather who never missed a game in the Egyptian league, never mind the national team. “Al Ahly fans died” he said. I was in Istanbul and at first thought he was exaggerating. “They Died” he said it again. Videos of the massacre unfurled, stories were inhuman, on that night Egyptian football died. Fans were banned from the stadiums after that day, the 2012 league was cancelled and Al-Masry was suspended for two years.
In the following season the league was split into two groups to separate between Al-Ahly and the Suez line teams. The league was cancelled again, this time due to the 30th of June revolution. At that time players who didn’t play for Al-Ahly nor El-Zamalek didn’t get paid enough money to sustain a normal life. They had to work part-time jobs to continue living.
Internationally, CAF decided to switch the AFCON to odd-numbered years in 2013 to avoid year-clash with the FIFA World Cup. Egypt faced the Central African Republic in the first round of the qualifiers and astonishingly lost 2–3 in Egypt. The Central African Republic qualified 4–3 on aggregate and for second time running Egypt failed to qualify for the AFCON.
Another shot at the World Cup beckoned. The rising Mohamed Salah was complementing the ever-green Mohamed Abou Trika throughout the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Sweeping their group with six wins out of six they had to face Ghana in a two-legged play off. The first leg was in Kumasi and after getting a goal to make it 1–2, the Egyptian players were just waiting for the nightmare to end. It ended, but with six goals to one. Egypt’s task in the second leg was near impossible, and Ghana qualified to the 2014 World Cup. Once again it’s that taboo word, the World Cup qualifier.
Back to the league, Al-Ahly won the first completed competition after the Port-Said massacre. El-Zamalek had to respond as they hadn’t won the league since 2004. Enter Jesualdo Ferreira, three times Portuguese League winner, and two times Cup of Portugal winner with Porto. The guy was managing in the Champions League !
One day before his unveiling Zamalek were leading with 44 points, three clear of second-place Enppi who they faced on Sunday the 8th of February. The significance of the match however wasn’t the table standings. This was the first match with fans since that night in Port-Said. Unfortunately, a similar situation occurred. Death tolls rose. The game had already started and by half time the players of Zamalek had known of the incident. The match however was completed and the supporters who managed to get in insulted the players and the club because of their decision to complete the match. The Love was lost.
Ferreira won the title and El-Zamalek were crowned Egyptian champions for the first time since 2004. Nothing however would compensate the loss of a loved one, whether it was a brother, a close friend or a fellow supporter. The incident at the 30 June stadium will forever be in the minds of Zamalek fans.
Stating the obvious here, the banning of fans continued after that incident despite the state being able to secure football matches as seen in the 2012, 2013, 2016 CAF Champions League finals and the 2014 CAF Confederations cup final. The CAF insisted the semi-finals and finals were to be with the attendance of fans. Fans were itching for a sniff of that air mixed with green grass, the long narrow security check before entering, the sound of the chants echoing around the stadium. Sellouts as expected.
Chapter 3: Immortality
Salah’s stint at Basel showed glimpse of his magic, but my oh my how the story have ended for the left footed magician. After impressing against Chelsea twice in the 2013–14 Champions League group stage a certain Jose Mourinho personally interfered to switch Salah’s trip from Anfield to Stamford Bridge.
Little chances at Chelsea resulted in him going out on loan to Tuscany, specifically Florence. “Who are those Fiorentina lot ? Are they good ? Why do they play in purple” I got these questions everyday from close people. My father, and grandfather kept joking about how you go from Chelsea to Fiorentina, but Salah didn’t. He learnt the language, tried to blend in, only had Micah Richards to speak English to, and most importantly scored goals. Impressive performances earned him a quick reputation in Serie A and everyone in Egypt were on the edge of their seats when Fiorentina played. Yeah Fiorentina in Cairo, tell me about it….
Egyptians and football were reconnected by Salah. The anticipation for any game was only for Salah. Not Al-Ahly nor El Zamalek or even the national team. It was Salah, Salah and Salah. Two seasons followed at Roma, and AS Roma shirts were starting to appear in the Egyptian capital. Two names dominated, Totti and Salah. Roma was everyone’s second team and every game was on TV if Salah was playing. His presence made the people happier, prouder and above all living.
Rewinding back to the taboo word, the World cup qualifier. To qualify this time Egypt needed to top a group including Ghana, Congo, and Uganda. The standings were as follows Egypt with nine points, Uganda seven, Ghana five and Congo a single point. Uganda and Ghana drew the day prior to Egypt’s match meaning that a win for Egypt would guarantee qualification, other results though would mean they will have a flashback of that day in Kumasi as the last group game this time is away to Ghana. Salah opened the scoring for Egypt in the 62nd minute but time stopped in Borg El Arab stadium when Congo managed to score with three minutes left on the clock. Nightmares of Kumasi began to haunt the Egyptian fans. Salah fell to the ground as if he was shot. Shot by the believe that he won’t be able to lead his country to the World Cup, but he rose up. Up to the skies. Immortal he was as he scored the winning penalty in the 94th minute. Egypt are in the World Cup !
Being one of the best performers in Serie A, the bigger clubs came calling. Liverpool was the next destination. The Premier League is worshiped in Egypt, add Salah to that and it was everything that anyone even talked about re football. Salah’s first season at Anfield was breathtaking having improved technically, tactically, professionally and personally he managed to swoop all the individual awards. PFA Players’ player of the year, FWA Footballer of the Year, The Premier League Golden Boot. He was the light at the end of the tunnel for Egyptian football.
Salahmania was everywhere, every house, street, cafe, club. It was all him. The World Cup was next but before was the Champions League final, only Rabah Madjer won it as an Arabian. Salah hoped to be the second but his match ended early after a shoulder injury. An injury that would haunt the Egyptians prior to the World Cup. Salah missed the first game against Uruguay, but the whole tournament was a misery as Egypt accumulated zero points and went home.
The football season was over. Egyptians had nothing to enjoy till Salah is back. He came back, back with a bang. An improved Liverpool went head to head with Manchester City for the Premier League title. Reaching a tally of 97 points but in spite of that came second to Pep Guardiola’s impeccable machine. Egyptians followed Liverpool and City’s games week in week out as if it was Al-Ahly and El-Zamalek, they followed it like they did in the 2002/03 season when El-Zamalek beat Al-Ahly by a single point.
It’s In the Champions League where they reached euphoria. A comeback against Messi and co. One of those Anfield nights under the spotlight meant that for the second year running Liverpool are in the final. Salah had unfinished business in Kyiv and he had to do it in Madrid. In Cairo, the game was on every TV, the game took over the day as well the minds of the Egyptians. It was their ‘sons’ redemption. Tense ninety minutes ended and Salah joined Madjer as the only Arabian to ever win and score in a Champions League final. He made it, the dream. From no one to a Champions League winner. He instilled hope and happiness in the heart of a nation, he re-ignited their love of football. A love that was destroyed by the circumstances. A love that once existed. A love for the game.
Mohamed Salah is immortal. For he is the resurrector of Egyptian Football.