Athletes are not immune to their political surroundings and football, in particular, has always been political for those struggling against oppression. But, as Sophia Azeb argues, the continuing relevance of the game to politics needs to be contextualised.
Egypt kicked off their 26 January African Cup of Nations (AFCON) match against Sudan in Kumasi as strong favourites, after their 4-2 victory over Cameroon. The Pharaohs began sloppily, however, clearly motivating Sudan to attack confidently.
Unfortunately, this led to a foul on Hosni Abd Rabou by Sudan’s goalkeeper, Mahjoub El Moez, essentially giving away the first goal to Egypt. At half-time, five yellow cards had been handed out and the crowd (including this Egyptian) was clearly anxious.
El Moez showed off his incredible talent, stopping at least four attempts on goal in the first 10 minutes of the second half. However, Amr Zaki took advantage of a manic moment on the field to generously pass the ball to Mohamed Aboutrika, who launched it square into the back of the net.
As Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary collapsed to pray on the opposite side of the pitch, Aboutrika lifted his jersey as he ran in celebration. The shirt he revealed read “Sympathise With Gaza” in English and Arabic – the referee pulled a yellow card on him immediately.
After 78 minutes, Egypt was up by 2 and it was only a dizzying five minutes later that Aboutrika outran El Moez to score the third goal. The group stage match ended in a 3-0 victory for Egypt and Aboutrika facing possible sanctions from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for his show of solidarity.
As it turned out, Aboutrika received no further punishment from the governing body, and Egyptians and Palestinians rallied around him for what they understood to be a definitive statement against the nearly year-long siege of Gaza. Fans of Al Ahly, the footballer’s local team, were already devoted to Aboutrika for his consistently impeccable performance as the team’s primary playmaker and his widespread philanthropy within Egypt
Al Ahly was in fact founded as a political collective opposed to British imperialism in the early 20th century. A club exclusive to Egyptians, the anti-colonial Al Ahly wore the red of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag as their uniform. This was in stark contrast to their primary rivals, Zamalek, based in the wealthy Cairo neighborhood of the same name. To this day, Al Ahly remains one of the most popular clubs in the country and is widely viewed as representing the poor each time they take to the pitch.
It is Aboutrika’s dedication to the game, to Al Ahly, to his fans and now to Palestine that have moved many more Egyptians – deeply opposed to their government’s attempts to keep its borders with Gaza sealed in accordance with their agreements with the United States and Israel – to hail him as a hero. Likewise, Palestinians under siege in Gaza are grateful to the attacking midfielder for acting on their behalf.
Football fans and commentators alike might be curious as to why Aboutrika received a yellow card for breaking FIFA’s rule banning political slogans during play while John Pantsil – a midfielder for Ghana and player for Hapoel Tel Aviv – faced no such threats of punishment for waving an Israeli flag after scoring against the Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup.
The ties between Western nations (including Israel) and Africa are defined, even on the pitch, by their historic and modern-day political, economic and social interactions. As progressive players, coaches and fans attempt to break through the notion that sport is antithetical to politics for the betterment of football as a whole, they are selectively singled out for punishment.
This selectivity is not exclusive to African nations’ relations with Europe, however. Aboutrika’s celebrated goal was scored against Sudan, perhaps the African nation most intimately and problematically connected with Egypt. Their relationship is long and fraught: the British at the turn of the 20th century took advantage of Ottoman Egypt’s occupation of Sudan to institute Anglo-Egyptian rule of the nation during the short-lived reign of the Egyptian monarchy.
Although some prominent Egyptian nationalists before and after the Revolution of 1952 expressed a desire for a united Egypt and Sudan – an independence tactic complicated by Egypt’s claim to the Nile Valley rather than equality among the nations – President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellows who ousted the British-backed monarchy ultimately decided to end their sovereignty over Sudan. Sudan achieved a symbolic independence from both Egypt and Britain in 1956, but the damage done during the near-century long occupation of the country manifested in a civil war between the North and South that continues to this day.
Sudan thus also deserves a role in this story. Aboutrika’s actions were that of an individual expressing outrage at the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Ironically, the first African nation to qualify for the World Cup came in 1934, when Egypt beat Palestine to enter the tournament. This does not speak to the eligibility of other African nations, (which would often be sabotaged because of the stringent and deeply prejudiced consideration of their entry by FIFA), as many remained colonised by Europe, which would select African players to represent their colonisers.
In the midst of this, Egypt and Sudan were able to join FIFA, but both refused to play Israel during the 1950s. Sudan, for instance, withdrew from the 1958 qualifiers to avoid playing Israel – a decisive and significant political statement. Sudan also joined Egypt and 15 other nations in Kwame Nkrumah’s boycott of the 1966 World Cup, in protest of FIFA’s exclusion of independent African and Asian nations from the game.
Football has always been political for those struggling against oppression, so the continuing relevance of the game to politics must be contextualised – and not only around Aboutrika’s t-shirt. Footballers who hail from formerly colonised nations must also confront the realities of neo-colonial expansion in their places of birth.
Hadi Khashaba, a former player and the co-ordinator for Al Ahly, remarked in response to the Aboutrika’s controversy that athletes are not immune to their political surroundings. Given the complicity of President Hosni Mubarak’s government in the siege of Gaza, Aboutrika’s actions and the widespread support he received from his countrymen and women is not surprising. Nor is it that Sudan, as the opposing team, has been left out of this conversation. After all, Egypt’s friendly relationship with the United States, the quiet dictatorship of its president and its reign as CAF champions provides it the privilege of positive reporting from the West – something Sudan, a so-called ‘darker nation’, is not afforded.
For his part, Aboutrika denied his actions had anything to do with the political turmoil surrounding the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million inhabitants. “I wore the shirt… from a humanitarian point of view,” he said in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera’s Carrie Brown some time after the match. “It was a personal statement from myself… I wore the shirt for Gaza’s children who are suffering, who are starving, who are vulnerable and fear for their safety.”
Indeed, we might take Aboutrika at his word. During qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, Israeli travel restrictions meant several of the Palestinian national team players were unable to cross the Rafah border into Egypt. In fact, Egypt is the only place the Palestinian national team may practice because the Israel Defense Force bombed and destroyed the Palestinian national football stadium in 2006.
Last year, after Palestine was eliminated from the World Cup because the team was prevented from travelling, FIFA Deputy General Secretary Jerome Champagne refused to reschedule their match. He stated, “football cannot go faster than politics.”
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