Egypt’s football triumph

Tarek Osman
13 February 2008

Mohamed Aboutrika is an Egyptian man in his 20s. He resembles millions of others who can be seen in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria or any of the country’s cities: a slim, dark figure whose average appearance carries perhaps a hint of grief. But he is, suddenly, not so average: he happens to be the man who scored the only goal –and thus the winning goal – of the final of the African Nations Cup on 10 February 2008 in Accra, Ghana. In a decisive right-foot shot following a mix-up in the Cameroon defence thirteen minutes from the end of the match, Mohamed Aboutrika made Egypt champions of Africa for a record sixth time.

The victory was thrilling in its own, sporting terms. It was worthy of mention even on broadcasting channels outside the African continent or the Arab world which routinely show little interest in these regions, let alone their football contests. But where Egypt itself is concerned, it has in five ways a significance that goes beyond sport itself.

Also in openDemocracy on the global politics of football:

Hirotada Shimura, “The Japanese emperor and the World Cup”(27 May 2002)

David Hayes, “The World Cup kaleidoscope”(29 May 2002)

Maryam Maruf, “Offside rules: an interview with Jafar Panahi”(6 June 2006)

CarlosForment, “The democratic dribble: Buenos Aires's politics of football”(15 June 2006)

Patrice de Beer, “Politicsand soccer: France sings the blues”(19 June 2006)

Geoff Andrews, “The Azzurri's message to Italy”(9 July 2006)

Patricede Beer, “Zidane's farewell, France's hangover”(9 July 2006)

KA Dilday, “Zidane and France: the rules of the game”(18 July 2006)

The ingredients of magic

First, it is a proof, first and foremost to Egyptians, that they are not hapless, helpless people disconnected from the culture -and feel - of winning: any winning. In this it resembles the comeback match of an ageing boxer who has been on a losing streak, and whose first knockout in a long time both reminds him of a lost sense of accomplishment and conveys a foretaste of the possible. Egyptians long without real national achievements lament the days since their country was a beacon of progressive thinking, development and advance in the Arab world and Africa; and grieve for the experience of later generations. There is a sense of nakedness in the Egyptian psyche: stripped of the glorious past, left with the desolate present. A competitive success- by a team known, with pregnant symbolism, as the Pharaohs - drives a current of hope in souls badly in need of it.

Second, the victory is an example of the potential of ordinary Egyptians –like Mohamed Aboutrika, now being described as the “magician of African football”- to make their modest professionalf oundations (Aboutrika plays for the local Al-Ahli sporting club) a springboard to major international achievement against top-class opposition (nine out of Cameroon’s eleven key players are professionals at world-class teams such as Barcelona and Chelsea).

The regular Egyptian person, without access to means of professional advancement and personal autonomy – a good education, reliable healthcare provision, a credible social-security system, an entrepreneurial economy, access to financing, availability of support networks such as IT infrastructure – can easily be seen as a laggard or even off the scale in terms of international competitiveness. Indeed, a number of Arab social, political and economic analysts have done just that by emphasising the huge – and ever increasing – gap between the productivity and wealth-generating capacity of the individual Egyptian and his or her counterpart in south and east Asia, Latin America, and increasingly the Arab Gulf.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s work TheCulture of Defeat examines the symptoms that reveal a defeatist sensibility in a society. Egypt’s current culture exemplifies almost all these symptoms: among them, the dominance of individuality; the lack of a national project or even a sense of national “togetherness”; waves of emigration of the best, the brightest and the most hopeless;a feeling of unworthiness and inferiority in relation to foreign cultures; a systematic belittling of what’s possible; a general disgruntlement that is apparent in daily encounters.

Yet every few years, a spark of hope illuminates the surrounding landscape. At one time, it was an ordinary Egyptian man who had never travelled outside the country’s borders, yet became a Nobel literature laureate: Naguib Mahfouz. At another moment, it was a man from Alexandria who - still speaking heavily accented English after twenty-four years in the United States- became a Nobel chemistry laureate: Ahmed Zewail. In yet another time, it was a poor, slim girl from a humble Nile delta village called who became the Arab world’s (and perhaps the world’s) most extraordinary singing success: Umm Kalthoum.

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker 

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

Egypt: who’s on top?”(7 June 2005 )

Egypt’s crawl from autocracy”(30 August 2005 )

Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like”(16 January 2006 )

Can the Arabs love their land?”(22 May 2006 )

Egypt’s phantom messiah”(12 July 2006 )

Mahfouz’s grave, Arab liberalism’s deathbed” (23 November 2006 )

Arab Christians: a lost modernity”(31 August 2007)

Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics”(9 November 2007)

Nasser's complex legacy”(15 January 2008)

These sparks of hope - at least emotionally, and for a long instant - break the chain of the culture of defeat.

Third, Egypt’s cup triumph is an event that, albeit for a short while, reminds Egyptians of pleasurable pursuits that they can indulge in; reminds them that there are things in their lives that they can watch, looking forward to other than securing for themselves and their families the basic needs of living. This is another confirmation of the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow’s portrait (in A Theory of Human Motivation) of the “hierarchy of needs”: thus a pleasure of a higher rank (e.g. the contentment brought by the victory of one’s national football team) might - by lifting a person’s spirits and appreciation of life - exceeds one of a lower (e.g. securing bread for one’s children after standing for two hours in a queue).

Fourth, this event generates the rare sort of euphoria that makes Egyptians parade through the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities waving their national flag and roaring the name of their country – in pride! These are the same people, the same youths who apply in their hundreds of thousands for visas to rich Gulf states; who sending myriad applications (more than 4 million in 2007 alone) for the random United States green-card lottery; and who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean to find a better life in Europe.

Farouk Guida, a contemporary Egyptian poet, imagined the voice of one of the latter- a young man who drowned in sight of Italian shores after fleeing his homeland in search of life (not a better life, just life): “nothing is left in it but a false morning….a land screaming amidst the fires of oppression….don’t ask me about my home’s tears….about my mother’s grief as I drown….behind the clouds, my land has become mountains of darkness.”

Egypt’s winning – again, a simple winning – has inspired the same youths to see light in these mountains of darkness.

Fifth, this football moment is an occasion that was significant enough to make Egyptians - despite the pressures, oppressions, humiliations,and degradations that they typically experience in their daily lives- a happy people, even for one night.

For such an outcome alone, Mohamed Aboutrika and his colleagues deserve their reputation for “magic”.

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