Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 September 1999
Issue No. 448
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (304)

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, sports occupied an insignificant space in Egyptian social life. It was considered ludicrous to add sports to school curricula while the coverage of sports in newspapers was given short shrift. But all that changed by the 1920s as an enlightened class educated in Europe returned home with a better understanding of sports and the benefits accrued from physical education. Athletic activities soon started to spread among government employees and sports clubs were established. Sports also became a political platform where Egyptians could express their anti-British nationalism. From the outset, football was the No 1 sport and, as is the case today as well, the Ahli-Zamalek crosstown rivalry took centre stage. Al-Ahram was in the thick of this sporting renaissance, making headlines of its own in a celebrated column. From the newspaper's pages, Dr Yunan Labib Rizq * recounts the birth of the country's sporting life

The sports page

In February 1902 Al-Ahram attacked Mr Dunlop, the secretary of the ministry of education, for the "innovation" he had introduced into school curricula: "physical exercise." To Al-Ahram's editors at the time, the new feature in Egyptian public schools would only distract students from their studies and lead to friction. Proof of this, they said, could be seen in the brawl that broke out between students from Tanta and Mansura secondary schools following a football match. "Students of Mansura Secondary School, supported by zealots, assaulted students from Tanta Secondary School as well as some spectators following a football match between the two schools," it reported at the time.

Ahmed Shawqi reflected these sentiments in the lengthy poem he wrote in 1907 on the occasion of the end of the 25-year term of British High Commissioner Lord Cromer. One verse in particular epitomised the famous poet's disapproval: "Who in our schools told you to drop the sciences and take up football?"

Fifteen years later, however, Al-Ahram changed its stance on sports in education. Indeed, it could be said that 4 November 1922 marked the birth of sports journalism. On that day, the newspaper featured what was to become a permanent column in its pages. "Athletic games", as it was called, took up nearly two of the seven columns on the page. For a four-page newspaper, that was a good deal of space, given that the last page and a good portion of the third page were reserved for advertisements and just over two pages were devoted to editorials and commentaries.

The change in the newspaper's attitude was not as sudden as it appeared. In the years since its initial condemnation of sports, numerous social and political changes would catapult sporting events to the forefront of readers' interest. By the second decade of the 20th century the ranks of the urban and rural gentry had swelled with new generations that had completed their education in Europe where they were inculcated with the importance of physical training. More important, this class could afford to indulge in sports and to establish athletic clubs. Epitomising this development was Al-Ahram's announcement, on 14 February 1919, of the founding of the National Athletics Club, later to be named Ahli. The article had been covering the elections of the club's board of directors. That the members of the board consisted entirely of pashas and beks, many of whom were major figures in Egyptian finance and politics, is indicative of both the social stratum that was promoting athletic activities and the increasing importance of sports as a social and political focal point.

Secondly, with the spread of education in general came the increasing conviction in the adage that a sound body builds a sound mind. Al-Ahram itself frequently lent itself to promoting this cliché. On 25 November 1910, for example, it featured an article entitled "The Benefits and Forms of Physical Exercise." Physical exercise, the author wrote, "improves the circulation of blood, aids digestion, rids the body of excess fat and is of great benefit to the nervous system. It is indispensable to all people in general and to those involved in the cerebral professions in particular. For this reason it is widely practiced in schools and universities in England and Germany, where, moreover, it has become a component of the educational curriculum."

It is not odd, therefore, that the newspaper, which had once viewed sports in schools as a waste of time, would eventually concern itself with interscholastic sporting events. Thus, by 4 January 1921 it was not out of character for Al-Ahram to blazon: "The Cairo Elementary Schools Football Tournament begins today!" Considering the vehemence of Al-Ahram's opposition to the government's introduction of physical education into the national curriculum in 1902, one is struck by the newspaper's enthusiasm two decades later. Not only were schools competing in the tournament but were vying for the Adli Yakan Cup, named after the then prime minister. In addition, the newspaper's coverage of scholastic sporting events extended to the provinces. To cite but one of many examples, it covered an athletics day in Minia Secondary School, during which "spectators marveled at the students' dexterity and agility in all the featured games."

Of course, expatriates and the British presence in Egypt would feed the enthusiasm for sports and fuel the spirit of competition. In football, in particular, rivalry between the Egyptian and British teams was frequently heightened by nationalist tensions. Lending further to the unease, no doubt, was the fact that most of the British football players were drawn from the British occupation forces. Al-Ahram's coverage of a football match between the Amalgamated Club, an Egyptian team, and the All-Stars, a British forces team, offers a good example of how intense the rivalry was. The match was attended by more than 2,000 Egyptian and British sports fans, the newspaper recounts. It then related the events of the match as though it was played on the battlefield. The British team launched an offensive that galvanised the Egyptian team into retaliatory action. "After seven minutes, Abaza Effendi scored the first goal for the Egyptian team, sparking jubilation in the stands." In the second half, the newspaper reports, "the Egyptian team scored goal after goal, one by Gamil Othman Effendi, another by Ali Riad Effendi, and then a surprising third by right-winger Mohamed Gabr Effendi. By this time the British had given up hope. When the whistle blew signalling the end of the game, they were forced to admit the superiority of Higazi Effendi and his team which had won the admiration of all." It is interesting to note that the Egyptian football players were given the title effendi, generally reserved for the educated elite.

Two weeks later, the Amalgamated Club was not as fortunate in its match against the British Sixth Dragoons. On this occasion, the British scored a goal in the first five minutes of the game. The newspaper goes on to relate, "Amalgamated did all in its power to reverse the score, but luck was on the side of the British and remained with them until the final whistle was blown. Such was God's will and in the defeat of Amalgamated, He had his inscrutable wisdom."

At the same time, senior British officials in the Egyptian government frequently encouraged their staff to engage in sports. Consequently, most ministries that were heavily staffed by British functionaries had their own football teams. Many items in Al-Ahram covered the sporting activities of the government ministries. On 21 February 1921, for example, it announced that officials at the Ministry of Interior met with the British deputy director of national security in order to discuss establishing a sports club for the ministry's staff in Cairo. From another item, dated 9 July 1921, we learn that the Railways and Communications authorities were also actively encouraging athletic activities among their employees. In fact, it was T S Nobel, director-general of the Railways Depots, who fostered the establishment of a sports club for those authorities. Another British patron of the sports appears in a third news item which said, "The Ministry of Education football team challenged the Ministry of Transportation team in Cairo Sporting Club in Shobra. The match was sponsored by His Excellency, Mr Patron, the British advisor to the Ministry of Education."

On the other hand, the Egyptian student movement also played a part in the creation of new sports clubs, a fact noted by Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Pasha in his address to the general assembly of the National (Ahli) Club in 1919. The minister of justice, who had just been elected chairman of the club's board of directors, said the idea of founding the club had originated with Omar Lutfi, assistant dean of the Faculty of Law. Lutfi had found it disturbing that students had no extra-curricular activity apart from frequenting coffeehouses, "in which the only available physical activity is sitting." Lutfi, therefore, proposed "to set aside a large space outside of the city as a meeting place for students and graduates of the higher educational institute, a place where they could spend their free time in the pursuit of athletic activities." The minister was proud to announce that, at the time of his election to the board, the clubs membership had reached 263 and expected the number to increase soon.

Football, from the outset, eclipsed all other sports. During the sports column's first two months, other sporting events had to fight for the very limited space football grudgingly made available to them. Even then, two protagonists dominated football: Ahli and Zamalek, known at the time as the Amalgamated Club. Compared to the teams representing these two clubs, all other football squads had little more than secondary parts. That most Egyptian football enthusiasts already fell into one of two categories -- Ahli or Zamalek fans -- could be sensed in the sports column's coverage of the match between the two teams on 17 November 1922:

"Amalgamated, led by the renowned Higazi Bek, faced Ahli, headed by Riad Shawqi, in a heated match in Gezira. The stands were brimming with supporters of both sides." After a blow-by-blow account of the match, Al-Ahram's reporter said that he, along with the other spectators, was delighted "that the match had ended in a draw." The fact that neither side had scored was unimportant. As we know today, only a draw would allow Ahli and Zamalek fans to leave the stadium contented.

As most of the football referees in Egypt at the time were expatriates, the nascent Egyptian Football Federation was keen to remedy this fundamental element of the game. Al-Ahram itself may have been the catalyst for action in this direction. In its sports column of 8 November 1922 it wrote, "Athletic organisations are formulating the regulations governing referees, yet not a single Egyptian has taken the opportunity to prepare himself for the required tests to become a referee. If sports are lacking anything in Egypt, it is local Egyptian referees."

As if in response to the appeal made by "Athletic games", the Egyptian Football Federation initiated qualification examinations for referees. The federation placed an announcement to this effect in Al-Ahram, saying that the examinations would be held in the Agricultural Club and that candidates were expected to be familiar with official football regulations. The examinations would be both oral and practical and conducted "on the field on the days specified by the examinations board."

Evidently, the initial response to the invitation among Egyptians was poor for Al-Ahram's sports editor felt compelled to add an additional appeal: "All athletes who believe they have the necessary qualifications to serve as referees in the Egyptian Football Federation should apply for the examination so that, after a short time, a number of them will have filled the disgraceful shortage of Egyptians in this position."

Wali Pasha Wali Pasha awards a sports medal
Naturally, "Athletic games" closely followed the selection of the national team, a process which the author criticised. Mahmoud Murie, he wrote, was the most obvious candidate for goalkeeper, "in the absence of any real rival for this position." The choice of Mohamed El-Sayyid and Fouad Gamil as defenders, on the other hand, was not so sound. "Mohamed El-Sayyid and Fouad Gamil have always played in the right-wing position, although we believe that the committee erred in its selection." The defensive line in Egypt's first national football team consisted of Riad Shawqi, Ali El-Hassani and Abdel-Salam Hamdi. The selection met with the approval of the critic who wrote, "It is impossible to deny the strength of the defence as all three players have a superb record of performance at the heart of the defensive line. The choice of offense, on the other hand, was not as propitious. Khulousi, Khalil Hosni and Zaki Othman were promising selections but, for a number of reasons, the committee was mistaken to have chosen Higazi."

At any rate, this was the team that played against Britain on Friday 8 December 1922. The match was held in the Amalgamated Club where "throngs of football enthusiasts scrambled for seats." Among those present was the director and assistant director of the Egyptian Football Federation, Gaafar Wali Pasha and Fouad Bek Abaza, along with "many other prominent Egyptian and British figures. Late in the first half, the Egyptian team scored. Al-Ahram relates, "Sayyid Abaza, with his customary agility, put the ball into the British goal as though no goalkeeper was there. The crowd roared its approval." Sadly, the jubilation of the supporters of the Egyptian team would not last. Before half-time, the British scored to level the game. The atmosphere was tense throughout the second-half, and by the time the whistle blew to end the game, neither side had managed to score a winning goal. Nevertheless, Al-Ahram struck a philosophical note in its concluding remarks, writing, "The crowds left the stadium chattering enthusiastically about how skillfully the game was played and delightfully recalling every play and maneuvre." The event of that afternoon in the Amalgamated Club was only the opening chapter in the life of the Egyptian national team, which is now more than three-quarters of a century old.


Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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