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80 thousand fans turned up at the Pyramids last week for the "2010 party" photo: Sherif Mahmoud
I have never been a believer. Not in football, nor the World Cup, and certainly not in pouring millions into hosting it.
Six months ago, when I was asked to coordinate the Weekly 's "twenty- ten" page, I was sceptical; of Egypt's chances, of the practicality, and of finding about 100,000 words worth of material for several months about a sport I had little regard for.
But perspectives, like realities, change. Now, finally, I understand what all the commotion is about. If the World Cup comes to Egypt, there is no doubt it will be fantastic.
Football's international governing body, FIFA, issued their executive report on the bidding nations this week. The 90- page document, available at www.fifa.com breaks down each country's bid file, the progress made, and FIFA's assessment of where the country stands.
In the past two months, following FIFA President Joseph Blatter's announcement that a joint bid would be rejected, thus pretty much eliminating Libya and Tunisia, the competition was narrowed down to the wire finish between Egypt, Morocco and South Africa. And in the past few weeks, following the Madrid bombings and a slew of disconcerting press about Morocco's stagnant bid status, it became apparent that there are just two main contenders. The FIFA report echoes that loudly. And it is now clear that in the coming 216 hours -- the countdown to the announcement at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on 15 May -- there are only two nations left in the race.
For months the opposition football press has slammed Egypt as incapable of hosting a World Cup. The country has been described as "backwards", "disorganised", "lacking the facilities, infrastructure and know-how" to host the most elite sporting event on the globe after the Olympics.
However, like about 70 million Egyptians, all fervent football fans, FIFA fortunately thinks otherwise.
The FIFA report described Egypt's stadiums as "very good", its standard of football as "strong with good youth development", and its infrastructure and telecommunications as "capable of handling the 2010 FIFA World Cup". And given our history, which boasts centuries of welcoming travellers to this place in which civilisation was born, we have an "excellent hotel infrastructure, with more than enough rooms for all participants". That, of course, does not surprise us. Every year thousands of tourists make Egypt their holiday destination of choice, citing it as a "lifetime" dream. We have also been commended on our medical facilities, our ticketing policy and the nation's internal safety and security.
South Africa has received its FIFA points in much the same arenas, with the added plus of "excellent" for communication and transport instead of Egypt's "very good". But where Egypt boasts a culture of warmth and hospitality, South Africa is ridden with crime and a reported "lack of security" nation-wide.
"If the World Cup is granted to South Africa," the report began, "it will generate significant unity among different ethnic groups that were separated socially, culturally... for years. In addition, South Africa has a number of world class cultural and tourist attractions. South Africa has the potential to host an excellent World Cup."
In Egypt, "The general public is very passionate about football and spontaneously show their joy at the prospect of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup," the powers that be wrote. "It is largely for this reason -- added to the wealth of history, culture and tourism in the country and the strong backing given by the government to the bid -- that the inspection group believes there is potential for an excellent World Cup to be staged in Egypt."
What one country slightly lacks, another calls its strength. The main discrepancies between the final two contenders are politics and passion. One cannot ignore the reality that South Africa has politics on its side -- its tainted one-vote loss to Germany for 2006 known to be the reason why 2010 will come to Africa -- to "make up" for the voting scandal. The "ethnic unity" which the event would bring is also indicative of the political play for if the World Cup came to Egypt it would as well play a pivotal political role, dispelling the stigma of so-called Arab "terrorist" nations and their breeding grounds for creatures of menace.
When it comes to passion, however, Egypt clearly stands alone.
The past six months have been much like a visit to a foreign country -- the stadiums, the matches, the clubs, the learning of the sport itself, and the weekly gatherings to ogle local matches on TV. Through it all, the people who have an international reputation for "friendly" have displayed a different level of passion. When it comes to football, no other people compare. The "ism" of nationalism is finely interwoven with the football spirit, transforming what in other nations is a body of "fans", into a national identity: "footballism", Al-Ahram Weekly has termed it.
We love football, we love people, and we love to party. And in a sense we have no choice. Those three elements comprise the social fabric of the nation's culture and social identity; they are inherent. We like to live well, but we do not measure quality of life by material wealth. In Egypt, a good time is by far more valuable. We are obsessed by football, we spend hours over food, we enjoy movies and the theatre but would much rather gather with a big group of family and friends. We like to have fun and seldom do well alone. We are raised, in fact, to rely on others and reach out for support. Communication and sharing is the crux of our culture. And important to note, we have an unyielding pride in our country and our culture. And that is why we make such great hosts, because we love to show people around, and invite them to tea, and lunch that is known to extend to dinner and early morning snacks.
It is perhaps this passion -- not just for football -- but more for people, and life, that puts us in a league of our own. Like South Africa, we have what it takes in terms of infrastructure and facilities. But we have, as well, a quality that money simply cannot buy.
When our 70 million people are granted the chance to host the millions of other football fans from around the world, what will evolve will be far greater than any spectacle. The event will transcend beyond the borders of football and sport, offering the world a chance to re-unite at the place where civilisation began, at the crossroads of the world, at the gateway to Africa. The FIFA 2010 World Cup will bring much more than just global football fans together, it will bring humanity together once again. Nationality, religion and ethnicity are irrelevant in this affair. What is more significant is the bringing together of as many people as we can, from as many places as we can, in unified spirit. With 70 million people, of whom at least 69 million fit the footballist criteria, Egypt seems an apt place to host the world.
The hosting of the World Cup should not be about politics, nor money or global clout. No other single thing unites so many people from so many walks of life, and so many political and religious ideologies and perspectives, together in peace. And because of this, the granting of the World Cup should definitely boil down in its final stages to passion. And in that, I have incredible faith.