Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ready to drop the ball?

Soccer is by far the most popular sport in Egypt but it's squash that we should extol, reports Inas Mazhar

Click to view caption
Rami Ashour and Karim Darwish are Egypt's squash future;

Since the beginning of the last decade, Egyptians have dominated the world of squash, and we would hope the theme continues well into the next one. We are the global masters in almost all events -- men's singles and team, plus women juniors. Only the women's seniors has been beyond our grasp, thanks to Malaysia's Nicol David.

But we have a few names of our own. Karim Darwish is the world's top seed, followed by Amr Shabana in third, Rami Ashour fifth and Wael El-Hindi completes the top 10. That makes it four Egyptian men's players in the world's top 10.

The women are not as good but Omnia Abdel-Qawi is a respectable sixth in the world.

Led by Mai El-Sherbini, the 13-year-old who won the U-19 women's world event, the women's juniors are also the world's best.

Too bad squash is not an Olympic sport, but might be in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. And since all our squash champions are still young prodigies and the country is full of talent, it's almost certain that Egypt would collect several medals should squash enter the 2016 Games.

Despite Egypt's greatness in squash, the public's focus remains solidly on football, dubbed by FIFA the beautiful game. Egyptians have dominated African football in the past four years, winning the last two titles. According to international media reports, the team is currently regarded as the most disciplined team in Africa with its world class football.

African success aside, Egypt failed to make it to the World Cup finals in South Africa. Regardless of the circumstances that surrounded the two decisive qualifying matches against Algeria, Egypt did not make it to the world's most prestigious event in the world, and has not made it for the past two decades. Whether the Pharaohs manage to qualify for Brazil 2014 or 2018 is debatable.

The squad is right now at its peak, regarded as the golden team in the history of Egyptian football. With the likes of Mohamed Abu Treika, Ahmed Hassan, Essam El-Hadari, Mido, Amr Zaki, Mohamed Zidan, Mohamed Barakat, Emad Meteab, Hosni Abd Rabou and Ahmed Fathi they have corralled two African crowns. They are led by Hassan Shehata, the most successful football coach in Egyptian history and the longest serving.

The problem is that most of the star players have only a few years left in their legs, ruling out a 2014 World Cup. These include the 35-year-old midfielder Hassan, goalie El-Hadari, 36, dynamo Barakat, 34, and 33-year- old defender Wael Gomaa. The others, still in their mid- twenties, can dream further ahead.

Not all agree with the old-age problem. "Why can't we do it? We still have the best team in Africa and we're looking ahead to the Africa Cup of Nations in January. We will be going for a third title in a row and I believe we can do it," says Egyptian Football Association President Samir Zaher.

"Failing to qualify for the World Cup didn't mean we lost our position as the football power in Africa. We were unlucky, that's all. But I'm confident we'll maintain the same level in the coming years. We have the future ahead of us. We as a federation still have confidence in Shehata and we have accordingly renewed his contract until the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

"We still have many plans ahead of us so the coming decade will witness the best of Egyptian football. We are not only looking at the next two years but are planning ahead even for those who will succeed us. They can pick up from where we left off.

"We are planning to make the Egyptian national league a strong and professional competition which can raise the level of football in the country and attract more sponsors and open the TV market. Our plan in the coming years will also see developing the junior teams and the rest of the FA competitions," Zaher said.

At club level, the past five years have seen the downfall of legendary Zamalek, replaced by Ismaili, Petrojet, Haras Al-Hedoud and Enppi as runners up to perennial league winners Ahli, who remain the unrivaled football club in Egypt.

Can Ahli continue their winning ways in the coming decade or will the soccer map change? Zamalek have made an impressive comeback in this year's league race. Will they regain their glory days? Will the contenders force a more exciting league race?

To answer, the public need watch the games but Egypt is far behind in TV marketing rights. We are still new in the field and though many workshops and symposiums have been held and international experts sharing their experiences have come to help, we have failed to establish a policy of our own and the system is still being run haphazardly.

The National Sports Council (NSC) has tried to bring the parties close to an agreement but so far no cigar.

Egypt has much work ahead in other areas. After a 56-year- draught, the last decade saw Egypt winning an Olympic Games gold medal, its first since the 1948 Games in London. Karam Gaber managed to win a wrestling gold medal in Athens 2004. Four more medals in boxing and taekwondo were garnered in Athens. It had taken 20 years, since Mohamed Rashwan won a judo silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, for Egypt to win an Olympic medal.

But in 2008 in Beijing, Egypt returned to its old ways, winning only one silver medal in judo by Hesham Mesbah. The lone medal sounded alarm bells, especially since many believed the medals won involved luck more than athletic prowess. Indeed, none of the medal winners were part of the Olympic Champions project. The project nurtures promising athletes in nine Olympic sports which Egypt is good at -- weightlifting, wrestling, swimming, fencing, athletics, modern pentathlon, judo, boxing and taekwondo.

Yet the four-year-old plan failed to deliver Olympic medals. Weightlifters Nahla Ramadan and Esmat Mahmoud, parts of the project, got nowhere in 2004 and in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, had so many running disputes with officials that both were kicked out of the programme all together.

NSC head Hassan Sakr decided to revive the project especially after President Hosni Mubarak expressed displeasure over Egypt's performance in 2008.

"The NSC examined the results of Olympic Champions which were unsatisfactory concerning the nation's ambitions," Sakr admitted. "Accordingly, we are now applying a new general strategy towards developing Egyptian sports. We need to develop our sports to become an industry that would produce world class and Olympic champions who can revive Egypt's name internationally.

"The project has to remain stable and be continuous with a special strategy and policy that will not be affected by officials sacked and others appointed. Our target in the next decade is three Olympic Games: London 2012, Rio de Janeiro 2016 and 2020. Would-be champions are currently being selected for 2012 and 2016."

Sakr has called for a meeting which involves all parties working on the making of an Olympic champion, including National Olympic Committee (NOC) Chairman Mahmoud Ahmed Ali who later admitted that the project had failed because of disputes between the NSC and the NOC. "Each wants the upper hand in running the project. It's not only the project but in all other sports. Federations are working on their plans to prepare their players for the Olympic Games but the problems of budget constraints, as stipulated by the NSC, remains and will continue and as long as it continues, Egyptian sports will not improve, not in the next 10 years but more.

"We are trying to reach compromises among us for the sake of Egyptian sports. The NSC promised to allocate a budget for the federations as soon as possible in preparation for the next Olympic Games in 2012 in London. There is another project, Olympic Excellence, that would move in parallel with Olympic Champion. The new project aims at searching out promising talent all over the country in different sports."

Ali said Egypt could win one or two medals in London 2012 out of 30 athletes in six sports. "We are now focusing on these athletes because they are the main source of medals."

Ali has been quoted in newspapers of his intention to bid for the Olympic Games in 2020. Egypt had applied to host the 2008 Olympic Games but the file was excluded by the International Olympic Committee for being inadequate concerning the required conditions.

Egypt did not bid again but Ali recently announced that they will study the idea "especially that Egypt has all the infrastructure and facilities for almost all Olympic sports. We are studying it seriously before obtaining official approval from the government. We still have three years to make a formal bid."

The 2020 host city will be announced seven years in advance, meaning in 2013.

If Egypt takes it seriously, the country might compensate for its tattered dream of becoming the first African country to host a World Cup by instead becoming the first African nation to host the Olympic Games.

It would certainly make Egypt busy in the coming decade.

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