A soccer humiliation spins into Egypt's politics

A soccer humiliation spins into Egypt's politics

Published Oct. 16, 2013 6:17 p.m. ET

A hammering 6-1 loss to Ghana was more than just a blow to Egypt's faltering hopes for a spot in next year's World Cup finals. The humiliation immediately became entangled in Egypt's bitterly divisive politics.

Supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president crowed that the debacle was payback for the military coup that removed Mohammed Morsi.

Politics even intruded during Tuesday night's World Cup qualifier match, held in the Ghanaian town of Kumasi. Some Ghana fans in the stands held up a four-finger gesture symbolizing support for Morsi and the Islamists - apparently to taunt the Egyptian fans, some of whom replied with angry thumbs-down gestures.

''The coup team has been defeated,'' proclaimed one Morsi supporter, Mohammed Ibrahim, on Twitter.


Another blamed military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed Morsi. ''You jinxed us, el-Sissi,'' Mohammed Dardeer wrote on Facebook, calling the general ''religiously defiled.''

Egypt has been profoundly polarized by the July 3 coup. Since the ouster of Morsi - the country's first freely elected president - the new military-backed government has waged a fierce crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist allies.

Supporters of the military say Morsi and the Islamists tried to take over Egypt and represent a violent, radical force. Morsi supporters, in turn, accuse the military of wrecking a fledgling democracy and leading the country back into autocracy.

''It cannot be a coincidence,'' Alaa Sadeq, a career sports commentator turned Morsi supporter, wrote on his Twitter account after the loss. ''Can success be on the side of a nation being run by a coup?''

The pro-Morsi camp was quick to note that the Pharaohs' lone goal was scored by the team's star, Mohammed Aboutrika, who openly sympathizes with the Brotherhood.

Egypt's soccer addicts have been buzzing for months that Aboutrika's political persuasion may be causing divisions in the locker room. In one incident, he got into an acrimonious political argument with an army officer assigned to escort the team to its hotel when it returned home from a foreign trip after nighttime curfew.

Brotherhood opponents accused pro-Morsi fans of rooting against their own team. That too had a political overtone: Many accuse the Brotherhood of being more loyal to its international Islamist agenda than its own nation.

''Pro-Morsi supporters who are cheering for Ghana are simply sick and twisted,'' wrote Nervana Mahmoud, a well-known anti-Brotherhood activist, on Twitter.

Brotherhood ''people hope that Egypt loses,'' tweeted Mahmoud Salem, a prominent blogger known as ''Sandmonkey.''

Heading into the match, the government had given a pro-military spin to the team.

The sports minister said the Pharaohs were taking to Ghana ''the spirit of October,'' referring to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war that is touted in Egypt as a victory for its military. The minister also accompanied the team to Kumasi.

Even the airing of the match got pulled into politics. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network accused Egypt's state television of violating its exclusive broadcast rights by airing the match on its terrestrial channel. Egyptian authorities loathe Al-Jazeera for its perceived pro-Brotherhood bias, an accusation the network denies.

State TV chairman Essam el-Ameer insisted it was ''our right'' to air the match and ''we will do it again with any matches we want.''

''We will never surrender the rights of our people,'' he told the official Al-Ahram newspaper Wednesday.

The entanglement of sports and politics is not uncommon in this soccer-mad nation. Egypt's losses to Algeria in qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup finals sparked a stone-throwing assault on the Algerian Embassy in Cairo and a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

The return leg against Ghana will be played in Egypt on Nov. 19. But the Pharaohs' coach, American Bob Bradley, admitted that after Tuesday's heavy loss it was ''nearly impossible'' for the Egyptians to win a spot in the 2014 finals in Brazil.

The Pharaohs last reached the World Cup finals in 1990.

Egyptians have been desperately looking for something to cheer about after 2 1/2 years of turmoil, including a 2012 soccer riot that killed 74 people.

Tuesday's lopsided score was all the more painful because it came on the first day of a major Muslim holiday, the Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.

''Ghana slaughters the Pharaohs on Eid al-Adha,'' said Al-Ahram al-Masai, alluding to the Islamic tradition of sacrificing a sheep, goat or cow to mark the holiday.