Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2004
Issue No. 677
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When life began

Football is one of the threads that make up Egyptian culture and social life. Mohamed El-Sayed looks at the history of this intertwining

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King Farouk of Egypt was a zealous fan. Under his decree, the first Egyptian league was launched in 1948
The game of ball, it is commonly known, dates back to long before the history of most nations on planet earth; to the heart of civilisation and the homeland of the Pharaohs. But as the geography of the world took on more ordered form, and the boundaries defining nations were mapped out in bold, that haphazard kicking around of a ball adopted its own structured modus operandi.

While the informal game of ball has long held its place on the nation's streets and alleyways, the history of Egyptian "football" goes back to 1882, the beginning of British occupation of Egypt.

Given their place as the creators of this structured form of play, the English were keen to spread their re-packaged game around the world. As the British Empire established new colonies in the East, and the military camps of the occupying forces spread around the Arab region, so too did the game.

Inside the camps, playgrounds were built and goalposts assembled. The game assumed a ritualistic daily presence: the scenario being one Egyptians carefully observed from behind the sheltered fences of the camps. The initial reaction, it is written in the chronicles of history, is that it was first perceived as "odd". Things changed fast, however, and the reformed sport began to move out of the camps and onto the streets as locals began to imitate the British soldiers. It can be said that the rest is history: the game seeped fast into the Egyptian mindset, moving even faster onto the streets of major cities and villages.

As the interest spread and enthusiasm intensified, so too did the numbers grow, leading, ultimately, to the formation of the first Egyptian team.

That first team of 1883 comprised predominantly of Cairene players, playing against their mentors and teachers -- the British forces team. According to Egyptian sports historians, under the leadership of captain Mohamed Effendi Nashed, the Egyptians always beat the British team, their way, critics reflect, of conquering their occupiers in symbolic form.

It was 1892 that saw the first real burgeoning of the sport. That year, physical fitness was introduced to schools as a mandatory activity, the formation of school football teams coming hand-in- hand.

By the start of the 20th century, the nation's culture had seemingly been redefined, football having spread to every corner of the country and into almost every person's mind.

In 1903, the Al-Sekka Al-Hadid (Railways) Club formed the first football team, comprised mainly of British and Italian engineers working in the maintenance workshops affiliated to the Railway Authority of the time. With the subsequent establishment of Al-Ahli (National) Club in 1907 and Al-Mukhtalat Club (now Zamalek) in 1911, the game experienced a surge of national fervour, spreading to the Suez Canal region and Alexandria.

In 1913, the first unofficial Egypt Cup was played, and in 1914, the first school football competition was organised, the winning team awarded the Hishmat Pasha Cup. The competition was an annual event until 1932: the Law School taking the cup seven times, the Engineering School six times, the Police School twice and both Agriculture and Commerce schools once.

The popularity was palpable, and the sport's need for a formalised place in society echoed loud. On 11 September 1916, representatives of the British forces and 50 representatives of the Egyptian clubs met in Cairo to brainstorm the formation of the Egyptian-English Football Association (EEFA). In 1916, the newly founded EEFA organised the first official competition, bringing together Egyptian and foreign teams together for "The Sultani Cup", under the auspices of Sultan Hussein Kamel of Egypt. The cup's first five years saw the British forces team dominate it; Egyptian presence only being firmly felt in 1921/1922 when Al-Mukhtalat Club, clinched the title.

In 1920, the game's heat escalated, a conflict arising between the EEFA and the Mixed Association of Sporting Clubs (established in 1910 by Greek-Egyptian Alexandria resident Anglo Bolanki). The debate revolved around the question of who would choose the football team to represent Egypt in the Inverse Olympic Games that year. The chosen team left no mark at the Olympic Games and was critiqued by locals as being unrepresentative of Egypt and the sport. The friction peaked, resulting on 3 December 1921 with the establishment of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) headed by Gaafar Wali Pasha; a timely national event given the inauguration of the first official Egyptian competition (the Prince Farouk Cup) ten months earlier.

The conflicting interests of the various football bodies pertained, however, and in 1923, a joint session between the representatives of the Mixed Association of Sporting Clubs and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) took place. The outcome was the relinquishing by the Mixed Association of all its league responsibilities to the latter. The agreement, initially acknowledged by the Federation International de Football (FIFA) on 15 January 1923, was finalised on 21 May of the same year, marking a turning point in the history of Egyptian, Arab and African football. On that day in 1923, Egypt became the first Arab and African member of FIFA, the world football governing body.

Growth sky-rocketed from there. In that same year, the number of Egyptian clubs under the umbrella of the Egyptian Football Association increased from a mere handful to 25, and by the end of that decade, had hit the 55 club mark.

It was time to propel the game into a sporting league of its own, and in 1946, then-secretary- general of the EFA, Mahmoud Badreddin, outlined the necessity of creating a national football league. The idea was adopted by Haidar Pasha, EFA president, who conveyed it to King Farouk I, a dedicated football fan himself. In 1948, under royal decree, the first full-fledged Egyptian League was launched, the first of the national league matches kicking-off on 22 October 1948. Eleven teams partook in the event: Ahli, Farouk (now Zamalek), Al-Sekka Al-Hadid, Tersana, Ismaili, Misri, Port Fouad, Olympic, Ittihad, Tram and Yunan. It was Ahli that took home the 30- kilo silver and wood trophy.

With each tournament and league event came a surge in interest, Egyptians developing a seemingly boundless passion for the sport. The interest fuelled its growth and revenue stream, the selling of match tickets transforming into the primary revenue stream for clubs. Even as the country felt the turbulence of a changing regime, the sport remained rooted. The 23 July Revolution changed just minor details in the football arena: the King Farouk Cup was renamed the Egypt Cup, the Farouk Club became Zamalek, and Abdel-Aziz Abdallah Salem replaced Haidar Pasha as president of the EFA. The sole significant change, perhaps, was popularity, invigourated by the intensifying rivalry of Ahli and Zamalek. The officers of the July Revolution were at the centre of that fan-following.

Until the end of the 46 edition of the National League last year, 7445 matches were played in the National League with 47 clubs taking part in the 55-year-old tournament. Al-Ahli Club stands far ahead of all other competitors, with 29 trophy wins. Zamalek ranks second with 10 titles, Ismaili third with three, Olympic of Alexandria, Tersana, Mehalla and the Arab Contractors all claim one win.

The history of the Egyptian football league is written each day -- the numbers and figures re- recorded in the books. But as the winners change and the champions fall down, one thing remains constant: that upward curve of passion that began the day in 1882 when Egyptians first set their eyes upon the restructured game of ball.

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