Soccer is at the root of high Egyptian divorce rate


Divorce rates in Egypt are highest in families where the men are avid soccer fans, according to a study conducted by two Ain Shams University researchers.

The researchers, Hamdi Abdul Azeem and Mona el-Sayyed Hafez, found that the more husbands watch soccer matches, particularly in recently married couples where the wife has no interest in the sport, the more likely it is that they will break up.

The study, the first of its kind in a country where discussing divorce has long been taboo even though it has one of the Arab world’s highest divorce rates, was published at a moment that could prove to be a watershed in the history of Egyptian soccer.

It was published as Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC played their first match since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in February of this year. The match was widely seen as a litmus test of whether the Egyptian revolution had bridged some of the deep fault lines in Egyptian society.

Residents of Cairo long defined one another by which of the two clubs they supported. So important was Wednesday’s encounter that two days of clashes between protesters and police on Cairo’s Tahrir Square died down just hours before the game kicked off. Authorities considered cancelling the game out of concern that it could fuel the clashes on the Square but then decided to let it go ahead.

Past matches between Ahly and Zamalek amounted to warfare between the two clubs’ militant support groups. Matches had to be played in a neutral stadium and were refereed by foreign referees. Hundreds of black clad policemen turned the stadium into a virtual fortress in a bid to prevent violent clashes.

The deep-seated rivalry between the two clubs dates back to their founding. Al Ahly was founded as the club of Egyptian nationalists who opposed British rule of Egypt and the British-supported monarchy. Zamalek was the club of the British colonial administrations and those segments of Egyptian society that supported the monarchy. The fault lines between the two clubs remained even though the monarch was overthrown in 1952.

Wednesday’s match, in sharp contrast to the tension and violence that characterized past encounters between the two clubs, appeared to reaffirm the spirit that the militant supporters of both clubs had forged on Tahrir Square early this year during the 18 days of protests that led to Mr. Mubarak’s downfall. For the first time, the two groups set aside their deep-seated animosity and stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the Square in the front lines of the protests as they clashed with police and Mubarak loyalists.

Their cooperation coupled with the fact that they were almost the only ones on the Square with street battle experience helped destroy the barrier of fear that had long stopped Egyptians from confronting their autocratic leader. Since then, militants from both clubs have insisted that their priority is to root out corruption in Egyptian soccer, force the resignation of Mubarak-era officials and help move Egypt down the path towards democracy.

Minor skirmishes during Wednesday’s match did nothing to undermine their newly found common purpose.
Nonetheless, the deep-seated emotion that soccer traditionally evokes among Egyptians is documented in the Ain Shams study, which focuses on its effect on families.

An economist, Mr. Azeem concluded in the study that the highest risk for divorce was in families “in which the wife does not like football and the man engages in watching soccer matches and following up news of soccer players on a daily base.”

Mr. Azeem’s co-author, Ms. Hafez, quotes Um Mohamed, a Cairo mother of two, as saying that her husband had divorced her after she had refused to let him watch Al Ahly play. “Watching football matches led to daily arguments between me and my husband, who finally divorced me,” Um Mohamed said.

She said the couple had fought for some four years because she had not supported his soccer team and did not enjoy watching matches. Her husband, she said, had insulted her and had become physically abusive. The abuse was worst when Al Ahly lost a match.

In the study, Ms. Hafez noted that divorce rates tended to spike during the Premier League season.

“The divorce rate (in Egypt) is still higher than in most other Arab countries particularly during the soccer league season,” Ms. Hafez said. She said emotions were heightened during the season and soccer-addicted husbands were in need of psychological help, which they seldom sought.

“Such excessive love for football by husbands brings about a state of panic to the whole household where the wife suffers from the pain of divorce,” Ms. Hafez said in the study.

The study concluded that husbands’ expenditure on soccer paraphernalia and match tickets was a major irritant in marriages where husband and wife failed to share the same passion for soccer.

“Such expenditures tighten the budget of families to the point that they are barely able to meet their basic needs, and therefore leaving no money for recreation. In addition, a man and his wife need to communicate in order to stay strong, but unfortunately soccer-instigated tension means that espousal violence is getting the better of people,” Mr. Azeem wrote.

Mr. Azeem said that husbands tended to cancel summer vacations to be able to watch matches and afford tickets in a bid to escape their economic, marital and [personal problems. “It is a reality today that millions of husbands have no choice but to stay home, seeking entertainment from watching soccer matches. In doing so, families barely talk to each other anymore and their feelings are always tense,” he wrote.

(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])