Mina Essam, a Copt, wanted to join the junior team in one of Egypt’s most prestigious football clubs, but was turned down because of his religion, particularly the moment his name, which is obviously Christian, was known. “This boy will never be admitted to the field,” said former goalkeeper and current coach of junior goalkeepers Ekramy al-Shahat.
This how the story went according to the boy’s father. However, Shahat denied the incident altogether and said that the boy’s name was not in the list to begin with. While Shahat expressed his willingness to see applicants who were not in the list, the father insisted in his version of the story. This complaint was not, however, the first as a few months earlier 13-year-old Tony Atef accused one of the trainers at the same club of turning him down after pointing to the cross tattoo on his wrist. While Atef was eventually accepted following the campaign launched by his brother, the club still denied any claims of discrimination. Between this and that, the question of whether sectarianism in Egypt has reached sports becomes inevitable.
While both incidents took place back in 2016, their repercussions are far from over. In the same year, the US-based Coptic Solidarity organization filed a complaint with the International Olympic Committee and the FIFA about systematic discriminations against Christian athletes face in Egypt.
“There are approximately ten million Christians out of Egypt’s ninety million citizens, yet Egypt’s Olympic mission to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, which comprised 122 players, did not include a single Copt. Egypt’s 2012 London delegation also did not include any Copts. Additionally, not a single Egyptian Christian player, coach or trainer can be found on any club in the country’s premier league,” stated the complaint, adding that over the past four decades only a few Coptic athletes were included in official sports competitions.
“This is not an impossible statistical anomaly, but instead is the product of deep-rooted discrimination that exists in the administration of athletics and football in Egypt, and in Egyptian society at large.”
The recurrence of similar incidents and failure to secure places in Egyptian clubs also led a young Copt to establish an academy for Christian footballers. Academy Je Suis, based in Alexandria, was established by Mina Bendary to include rejected Coptic footballers, according to Mina Samir, who also failed to join any club. “I tried several clubs and failed. The moment they know my name they say they’d contact me and I never hear from them again,” Samir said.
“It was only when I met Mina Bendary, who also failed like me, that I was able to play football. The academy, which currently includes more than 60 players, specializes in training youths from seven to 20 years old and started to open branches in other cities outside Alexandria, particularly in the Nile Delta. Academy founder Mina Bendary denies that his project is for profit. “I only take 100 pounds per month from each player.”
Treated with suspicion
For Coptic MP Emad Gad, the academy offers a solution to the problems Christians suffer not only in sports but in general. “Copts are being treated with suspicion all the time by average citizens while the state considers them a security file that needs to be handled with caution,” he said. “That is why they decided to stay away from anything state-affiliated including mainstream football clubs.” Gad added that the academy could also play a role in alerting football clubs about the gravity of the problem, which in turn might lead to a gradual change.
The name of Christian footballer Hani Ramzi is always mentioned to refute allegations of discrimination. “For years, nobody was aware I was Christian and it never mattered,” said Ramzi. “I do not deny that some players are sectarian, but this is extremely rare and we do not want to generalize. I spent 20 years in football in Egypt and never had a problem.” Ramzi argued that many Christian families are reluctant to send their children for tests in the clubs for fear they would be rejected for their religion, especially if this is obvious from their names.
“This contributes to the remarkably small numbers of Copts in football teams and sports in general. That is why I urge all Christian families not to be concerned about that and to take their children and apply.” Ramzi also linked the debate about sectarian discrimination in football to the general political upheaval that followed that January 2011 revolution. “The talk about sectarianism is political and is part of other conspiracies to divide Egyptians and turn Muslims and Christians against each other, but we have resist this.”
Lawyer and writer Ragaei Attiya slammed the establishment of sports academies for Christians. “Such initiatives encourage the isolation of Copts and promote the division of the society into Muslims and Christians,” he wrote. “Next thing, we’ll be dividing all state institutions.” Attiya particularly criticized MP Emad Gad for supporting the academy and for “alleging” that he received dozens of complaints from Christian families whose children were rejected by Egyptian clubs on religious basis.
“Such claims overlook examples of Christian footballers who never had problem because of their religion. Apart from Hani Ramzi, whose son is also a footballer now, all the coaches of al-Ahli Club, which is accused of discrimination, were Christians such as the Portuguese Manuel Jose, the Dutch Martin Jol, and the Spanish Juan Carlos Garrido among others.” Attiya added that many Christians played in the team such as the Angolan Flávio Amado, the Ivorian Souleymane Coulibaly, and the Ghanian John Antwi to cite a few examples.
“Also if we look at Wadi Degla Club, we will discover that it has no Christian footballers even though its owner, Maged Sami, is Christian, so this totally refutes the argument. Also, there might be few Christians in football, but there are more in other sports such as tennis, volley ball, basketball, swimming, and rowing.”
In 2010, sports journalist Nour Qaldas released a book entitled Copts and Sports: A Goal in the Playground of Extremism in which he tackles the role religion plays in the choice of athletes. While the writer is Christian, the introduction to the book is written by Mohamed Mounir Megahed, founder of the Egyptians Against Discrimination Group, a Muslim. “This book tackles the problem of religious discrimination in sports and how it drove Christians away from sports. It is an important document for everyone who denies the existence of religious discrimination,” Megahed wrote in the introduction.