Controversial Egyptian soccer coach’s job on the line in African championship match


There is more at stake for controversial Egyptian national soccer coach Hassan Shehata when Egypt plays South Africa on Sunday than whether the crowned North African team advances in a crucial African Cup of Nations qualifier.

Egypt will also be playing for Mr. Shehata’s job as well as his reputation.

The once untouchable trainer, who led Egypt to winning three successive African, has been under attack in recent months not only for the team’s poor performance in this year’s African tournament, but also because of his outspoken support of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Militant soccer fans who played a key role in mass anti-government protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak in February believe that Mr. Shehata’s dismissal would serve their goal of removing the ousted president’s associates from key positions in soccer.

Egyptian soccer was a key battlefield for Mr. Mubarak, who hoped to garner popularity for his repressive regime by associating himself with the national team’s success.

Weekly stadium battles between police and the militants offered a rare opportunity for Egyptians to vent their anger at the lack of political freedom and economic opportunity as well as rampant corruption.

In their campaign to force a clean-up Egyptian soccer, militants have forced the board of premier league club Ittihad al-Skandariya to resign and are targeting the board of Ismalia SC. Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher announced last month that he would step down 18 months before his current term ends.

Alongside Mr. Zaher and Mr. Shehata, other officials who fans would like to see go include National Sports Council chairman Hassan Saqr, national goalkeeper trainer Ahmed Soliman who is suspected of having abused political prisoners in Mr. Mubarak’s jails, crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC board member Ibrahim Hassan, and Hassan Hamdi, chairman of Egypt’s most popular club, Al Ahly SC.

Egyptian authorities last month remanded in custody controversial lawyer Mortada Mansour, the former head of Zamalek, in the first post-Mubarak arrest of a senior football figure.

Authorities are investigating Mr. Mansour’s alleged role in the February 2 attack on anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square. These attacks have been attributed to supporters of Mr. Mubarak; they were riding camels and donkeys. Mr. Mansour has denied any involvement in the attack.

Mr. Mubarak’s information minister Anas el-Fekky was charged last month with corruption by depriving the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, which he ran, of about $1.9 million in profits by exempting private television stations from fees for live broadcasts of the 2009-2010 soccer season and the start of the 2010-2011 season.

The prosecutor’s office said Mr. Fekky had done this to further his “personal interests as part of an attempt to impose his control and media policies on these stations,” at a time when the radio and television union had debts of around 14 billion Egyptian pounds ($2.4 billion).

Mr. Shehata led Egypt, a seven-African title-holder, to winning the last three cups in a row. To stay in the game, Egypt with just one point from three games needs to defeat South Africa by a margin of three goals.

Failure to advance would constitute an end of an era, the probable dismissal of Mr. Shehata, the Nations Cup's most successful coach, and Egypt's first absence from the finals since 1982.

Authorities moved the match from Cairo's Military Academy Stadium to a smaller capacity venue after a series of incidents involving militant fans at several African matches in recent months.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry has repeatedly warned the EFA that it will cancel this season’s soccer league if militant fans continue to disrupt matches. The EFA, concerned that cancellation would impose further financial losses on clubs has warned that warns could be penalized by losing points if they are unable to reign in their supporters.

Clubs are financially strapped following a three-month suspension of all league matches that ended in April in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point during the protests that ousted Mr. Mubarak and immediately after his departure.

“It’s a do-or-die match. The win will give us a glimmer of hope while a defeat will signal the end of that generation, which is the most successful in the history of the national team. We are in a critical position, but this is not the first time we face an uphill climb. We overcame many difficult situations, especially in the last World Cup qualifiers,” Mr. Shehata told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida.

Critics have charged that Egypt performed poorly in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations because Mr. Shehata had failed to replace aging players with younger talent.
Mr. Shehata’s pro-Mubarak stance during the anti-government protests irked militant fans many of whom played a key role in clashes with police and supporters of the ousted president. As a result, militant fans have turned their back on Mr. Shehata as well as the team itself because most players stayed on the sidelines during the protests.

“This is not our team, its Mubarak’s team,” say Mohammed Hassan a leader of the Ultras White Knights, the Zamalek militant fan group.

The rift with the fans prompted Mr. Shehata to warn several time in recent months that he was considering resigning as national coach. “I changed my mind because I still hope I can help Egypt reach the World Cup. I believe the current crop and the new players are ambitious and eager to achieve that aim,” he told Al Jarida.

Mr. Shehata has rejected criticism and accused the media of seeking to undermine his position. “The corrupt media is still disrupting our work. I endured lots of hard times because of their unjustified attacks on me,” Mr. Shehata said.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])