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

Alaa Abdel-Ghani

...of course not!

While the intrinsic value of the Beautiful Game is arguable, Alaa Abdel-Ghani sees no debate over our passion and obsession which will last forever

Did you ever wonder why a grand total of 270 million people, or four per cent of the world's population, are involved in football? If you cheat and count avid relatives and close friends of active participants in football, the total number is even more impressive: well over a billion people worldwide are involved in football. In other words, for every six people in the world, one of them has something to do with soccer.

What is so great about football? It apparently all begins in the womb when the would-be Messi starts taking pre-natal direct kicks. You can play it anytime, anywhere, in streets, parking lots, parks, school playgrounds, gyms, indoor arenas, beaches -- so long as a ball -- made of anything, from string and paper to socks and rocks -- is available.

The principle is ridiculously easy. Eleven players try to put a ball into a rectangle using their feet and (in more ways than one) their head. The same players try to prevent the opposition from repaying the favour.

Entering the second decade of the century, football will continue to be extraordinarily popular. It doesn't seem to matter that it's low-scoring, that the field is too big, that too much time is spent moving the ball up and down the field, and that the sport can be as entertaining as watching a marathon in slow motion.

What is just as wondrous about the interest and excitement football generates is that while to so many people soccer means everything, to the same people it really means nothing at all. Most peculiar about football is its complete lack of impact on our immediate and literal bread and butter life. For the next 10 years and beyond, it won't clothe, feed or shelter. It will not decrease increasing poverty. It has no power of its own accord to change the world. The only thing football can do, should your team win, is make you feel better in a country where so many people don't feel so good.

But even the saviour that is football can let you down. We're not going to the 2010 World Cup (what a way to start the decade!) reinforcing the belief that the only way we'll ever make it to the World Cup is if we host it ourselves. However, even that cannot be done readily. Due to FIFA's rotation policy, no African country can bid for the showpiece before 2018.

So the new decade must begin with the anti-dramatic defence of our Africa Cup of Nations crown which we've won a record, ho-hum, six times.

Like in the previous championship, Egypt will depend on a majority of homegrown talent who ply their trade in their domestic league, punctuated by only a couple of foreign-based players. Perhaps only one will have his football cleats on rich and famous European soil.

All the better. Egypt's league allows a maximum of three foreigners per club. The rule should remain as is, because when we depended on our own players it produced a national team good enough to win the Africa Cup of Nations the last two times. The conclusion is that when you give enough Egyptians enough opportunity to play, they give you championship titles. Egypt is an example of how teams can get results by using their own kind.

To continue such success, we must nurture our young. These pricey football academies that have shot up in Cairo with brand names like Barcelona, AC Milan and Arsenal -- have they produced soccer players worthy of their names? So far they haven't, not necessarily because they can't but because they haven't been around long enough. By 2020, though, the fruits of these soccer schools should be ripe for the picking.

Success will stem not just from talent but hours of hard work and a concentration on physical training. Our academy system is one where players train for a maximum six hours a week. Compare that to 16-year-old Brazilians, who train for up to 20 hours a week.

Along with the skills and an awareness of team tactics, our future players will need pure physical stamina to play top-flight football. Quite a few Egyptians have the football wherewithal to make it in the Premiership, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and the French league. That's what every foreign coach who has ever come to Egypt attests. But there's always the attached proviso: our stamina does not see us through. So, we would probably do well at the start of the season, wither by Christmas, need mouth-to-mouth by Easter, with a post- mortem conducted at the final whistle.

World football is getting faster, fiercer, more fatiguing and more furious. To demonstrate the lung- bursting nature of football in the modern 2020 era, a player will have to cover roughly 380 miles a year while playing for club and country, a 10th of it at sprinting speed or close. He would be less the exception, more the rule. Football is today and tomorrow full of running men. The old coaching instruction, "let the ball do the work", may no longer be relevant. It will be impossible to be a top player without hard labour.

The stress on fitness has meant we will enjoy only a few good games, not many great ones. Football in the decade ahead cannot be aesthetically pleasing. The teams that flourish will rely on athleticism rather than flair. With astonishing stamina, players will run like men possessed. They will outrun and outhustle rather than outplay their opponents.

If football is losing panache on the pitch, you can depend on our Ultras fans, with their Ultras-sonic booms and Eveready bounciness, to compensate in the stands. Egyptian Ultras used to sit side by side until crowd violence in 1971 meant they would have to be forever separated. But if they are allowed to once again sit with each other, rather than face each other, the electric current running between them might short-circuit.

Remember, football unites -- sometimes (re Egypt and Algeria, or worse, Honduras and El Salvador).

Ultras will continue to pledge absolute fidelity to Ahli and Zamalek, our two football powerhouses, who in turn, will continue to be the yardstick used to measure ourselves against the world. Like dinosaurs, Ahli and Zamalek have ruled Egypt's earth, though the latter has been of late close to extinction. That Ahli have won the league 34 times to Zamalek's 11, including the last five seasons, appears to ensure another highly successful decade for the red shirts. Zamalek will have difficulty being more than bridesmaids.

Neither Ahli, Zamalek nor any other football team in Egypt is privately owned. We don't see Egyptians buying football clubs. But why doesn't Egypt have somebody like Suleiman Al-Fahim who made Manchester City, whose only distinction in British football was its long-term tenancy at the lower end of the league tables, now one of the world's richest clubs?

The acquisition of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi United Group for over $375 million was a startling coup for an overseas investor. We wish we had an Al-Fahim. The only comparable person we have is Mohamed Al-Fayed, the owner of lowly British side Fulham.

It would be nice to see an Egyptian with a famous foreign football club he can call his own. The feat would need an extraordinary amount of money but judging by the number of filthy rich members in our society, it can be done. They call Al-Fahim the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi. We surely must have the Bill Gates of Cairo.

Privately owned or not, soccer up to 2020 and more will not shake off the widespread feeling of societal discontent. Football cannot in and of itself ameliorate the lives of its devotees.

Yet we celebrate. We adore soccer; love it more than anything else. The government doesn't mind this reverence at all; the sport takes our minds off the myriad of life's problems that we hold the government responsible for. Our reply is to want soccer more than we want the country's political parties put together, and then some.

Football is probably so revered because while it's crushing when you lose, and more so when you are helpless and your life hopeless, the delirium of victory, however transient, masks many of the woes and heals much of the hurt.

There's nothing like it. The feel of winning is beyond compare.

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