Fans return for Egypt's qualifier
About 10,000 fans will be allowed to watch Egypt's World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe on Tuesday, a significant move that the home country hopes will help its badly damaged national sport return to normality.
The Egyptians also think the fans' presence can boost their chances of qualifying for the 2014 tournament in Brazil to reach the World Cup for the first time in more than 20 years.
Egypt's Ministry of Interior will allow a limited number of supporters into Alexandria's Borg El Arab Stadium on the Mediterranean coast, which is progress in a country still fractured by political violence and traumatized by the deadly clashes at a league game a year ago in Port Said that left over 70 people dead and led to a yearlong fan lockout for national team games.
''It is a good number,'' goalkeeping coach Zaki Abdel Fattah said of the 10,000 and the chance to have fans cheering the team on again. ''We used to play with zero. More than zero is a good number.''
Egypt's civil crisis since the overthrow of longtime president Hosni Mubarak has also taken a severe toll on football, the country's sporting passion. The record seven-time African champions and winners of three continental titles in a row from 2006-10 have failed to qualify for the past two African Cups.
Even before the troubles, the World Cup proved an elusive prize, with the Pharaohs having last played at football's showpiece event in 1990.
But as Egyptian football slowly recovers, former U.S. coach Bob Bradley has led Egypt to the top of Group G in African qualifying with two wins from two. It can open a five-point gap on Mali with victory over Zimbabwe, but Abdel Fattah said the bottom-place opponents won't be underestimated.
''Every game is important,'' he told The Associated Press. ''Every game brings us closer to the Word Cup. There are no easy games anymore. We will give them all the respect. The main focus is the World Cup.''
Abdel Fattah worked with Bradley in the United States and praised his dedication through Egypt's political turbulence.
''I have worked with Bob for a long time, more than nine years,'' Abdel Fattah said. ''He always likes a challenge. He is a great coach with a good personality. He does not like easy jobs, he likes to feel challenged.''
The goalkeeping coach also said that despite the ongoing ''unsettled'' conditions in Egypt, people ''breathe'' football and it ''unites all.''
''It doesn't matter which affiliation or which religion you belong to, football provides hope,'' he said.
Zimbabwe will be led by German coach Klaus-Dieter Pagels for the first time in a competitive international. The team has had its own significant struggles lately after the fallout from a match-fixing scandal, which swept through the top levels of the sport in the southern African country.
Egypt's match with Zimbabwe and Algeria's home qualifier against Benin will bring Africa's main qualifying group stage to the halfway mark.