When I moved to Egypt some 14 years ago, there was a palpable spirit that lived on the streets and in the hearts of all Egyptians. It was loud, and passionate, full of love…and even if we were on opposite sides of the field, it united us. That was the spirit that we saw with every football game here. I remember quite vividly about 11 or 12 years ago, Egypt was in the running for some kind of cup. The time was around 8 or 9 pm. I had watched part of the match, but it was my son’s bedtime, so I turned off the TV and took him to his room. A few minutes later the roaring of cheers washed through our apartment. It was exactly as if I were at the stadium and the cheering crowd was live before me! “We just scored another goal,” I laughed. Such a beautiful spirit.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am in no way a sports fanatic. I don’t watch every game, know all the stats, and most of the time I even screw up the players’ names. But I watch once in a while, and if it’s a match with some kind of cup at stake, chances are I’ll be excited about it. And the great thing about Egypt used to be just that: that even people who were not football fans got into the cheering spirit once the matches came around. It was something fun that united us all. Like I said, it was a beautiful spirit.
But that spirit died with the rise of the January 25th revolution. It was as though people became too caught up in politics to care about anything else. It was as though eating, breathing, and dreaming politics was what would cause the change that so desperately had to take place. I wonder if it’s another manifestation of the Egyptian credo, the one I see in so many Egyptian men: we can only accomplish one thing at a time. Can’t concern ourselves with politics AND care about the game, apparently. So that spirit, the one that kept us cheering for victory, the one that urged us to push forward, even through the sweat and the pain, it took the bullet. And even when various foundations tried to revive it by lifting the ban that kept the stadiums free of spectators, there was always some idiot in the crowd, dead set on causing trouble. The local matches haven’t had any spectators for more than a few years now. Honestly, it’s just sad to watch the games and see the empty bleachers. I’ll bet it’s depressing for the players as well. There is no comparison between playing to a crowd of people cheering you on, waving banners with your colors, SHOUTING YOUR NAME, RAISING THE ROOF….and an empty stadium where the only sound is that of your own heart pounding. No comparison at all.
Tonight’s game between the favorite rivals, Ahly and Zamalek, vying for the Super Cup of Egypt, took place in Dubai. The stadium was packed, split between red and white. It was such a sight! You could see the crowd’s energy being passed to the players. Even the sportsmanship was turned up several notches. At one point a physical confrontation was about to ensue when players from both sides stepped in, calming the scene, refusing to let competition override integrity. And for those 90 plus minutes, that beautiful spirit – the one that united Egyptians no matter which jersey they wore, the one that gave them a reason to smile and laugh despite all the hardships of life – peeked its head out and inhaled deeply.
I really wish that spirit would return. The country is in desperate need of unison, and cheer. Giving some attention to the love of the game doesn’t detract from the importance of working toward building a better country. Just the opposite; if we can maintain the same kind of sportsmanship we witnessed tonight, if we can hold open matches and welcome back the crowds without reaping damages, perhaps we’ll find assurance that something better is attainable. Perhaps we’ll regain the will to keep pushing forward, toward a brighter future, and a better country. Perhaps. I vote we revive that Egyptian spirit.