Football is the new religion – a post-match musing

Football is the new religion – a post-match musing

Back in the United Kingdom – where I’m from – a new phrase entered the national consciousness during the 2004 European Championships: ‘football is the new religion’.

Of course, it is said with the tongue firmly on the cheek because religion plays such a small part in the British national psyche.

But whether this phrase was coined by men in marketing, or by the men of the cloth genuinely worried about the dwindling attendance in their congregation, one couldn’t help but feel that there is some truth in that simple yet succinct statement.

Here in Cairo, it would be outrageous to suggest that football is the new religion but you wouldn’t be too far off the mark to conclude that football is probably the only thing that could rival religion here.

I haven’t been in the city for long, but I already know how important football and religion are to almost everybody.

Wherever you go, you see the tricolore of the Egyptian flag, famous faces from the national squad on advertising boards, constant replays of the famous goals, and, of course, whenever the team is in action, the city goes into a complete lock down.

At the start of the African Cup of Nations this year, I treated any matches involving the national side as the perfect time to go shopping or walk around unhindered. After all, it’s not everyday that it’s just the road and myself at 7pm, and it was sheer bliss.

But then again, it isn’t everyday that you can be in a country which can rightly be proclaimed as having the best football squad in the continent.

So, to my eternal shame, I only latched onto the excitement from Angola late on, and can only blame my ‘late arrival’ on the fact that British home sides never win anything, and being sucked into any national euphoria always leads to bitter disappointment (I still haven’t got over England exit on penalties to bitter-rivals Germany during Euro 96!).

So how silly of me to have forgotten that not only were Egypt the defending champions, but were going for three in a row – a feat unthinkable in the competitive world of modern football.

So, good on the Pharoahs for achieving this ultimate accolade and under such dramatic circumstances. Personally, Egypt don’t play attractive or beautiful football; sometimes they look a little workmanlike (not unlike England, whom they will face in a friendly at Wembley next month), occasionally a little lethargic. They were completely outplayed by Ghana for most of the final. However, Hassan Shehata’s men are always theatrical, which makes them fairly entertaining to watch to the neutral supporter.

And they certainly play the kind of football which keeps their fans happy and entertained, and by retaining the Cup no doubt provides an opportunity for those in government to breathe another huge sigh of relief.

Even if you show no interest in the football, you cannot help but get caught up in all the hoopla. Just by weaving through the massive crowds following the semi-final last Thursday and the final last night around Ahmed Orabi and Midan Sphinx, one can truly feel the unbridled joy and happiness emanating from people of all ages, men and women alike, and all of these coupled with the perfect excuse to have a street party and the opportunity to exert Egyptian national pride.

Personally, I’ve been impressed by how well-behaved the crowds have been – there are no major reports of widespread disturbances or riots during these last few days -and that in itself is remarkable considering the number of people who attended the celebrations. These Cairenes truly put European football supporters to shame.

But amidst the carnival atmosphere and the all-night hooting, a couple of things troubled me: the demography of the crowd, and the convoy of trucks carrying riot-police dotted around the ‘party hotspots’.

After their semi-final rout against Algeria, I struggled to sleep until dawn due to the amount of noise outside my apartment on Ahmed Orabi. Why couldn’t these people just go home, I thought, and party during the day on Friday?

Then I remembered that most of the people I saw on the streets were young men, who probably used the victory over Egypt’s bitter rival as a rare opportunity to stay out all night.

Although I’m new to Cairo, I have heard how strict family rules are here – especially for curfews.

I then considered the level of unemployment amongst the young here and couldn’t help but think that these celebrations doubled up as an outlet for them to express their emotions and a rare chance to be rebellious.

You don’t have to be an expert to realize that this social malaise is bubbling just beneath the surface and anything could act as the catalyst for the final eruption.

And if football means so much to people here, a defeat spells trouble – as demonstrated by the violence outside of the Algerian Embassy in Zamalek last November.

Which is where the riot police comes in, I guess. I have no way of knowing whether they had always been deployed during these events; I presume they do, and disturbances are swiftly broken up before any sign of trouble.

Last Thursday evening, about four or five police trucks were parked outside Omar Effendi, and the guards were standing around, not interfering in the celebrations, and looked rather stern.

Last night, again, similar number of trucks parked at the same location, but this time, the riot police were holed up inside, their eyes peering out of those little windows on the side like they do in prison vans, and smiling away, looking rather relaxed and, at times, sheepish. The aura of authority just wasn’t there.

This ‘barrier’ between the police and the public somehow provoked a number of football fans to be what I would describe as ‘lippy’ with the guards – not quite taunting them, but as if to say, “you’ve been ordered to stay inside your trucks, we can do whatever we like, you can’t do anything to us tonight of all nights because if you do, there’ll be trouble for all concerned, so ha ha ….”

This may be very common for the locals but to the untrained eye, this is the equivalent of a disaffected youth openly rebelling against authority. I saw this happen a few times, and wondered how many of these disaffected youths had made their way via bridges and on mopeds from neighboring 6th October or Embaba last night? I’ll also bet that a lot of them had no reason to get up early the next day.

Ironically, these were exactly the kind of people the authorities here, through propaganda and the exploitation of national pride, covertly encouraged to direct their anger at the Algerians late last year, causing headline news around the world.

Now, those in power are playing a dangerous game here, and they’re even more vulnerable by exploiting the masses through football matches.

Put simply, by going into the 2012 African Cup of Nations as the seven-time defending champion, winner of the last three, unbeaten in 19 matches, only two goals conceded in this time round – this can only end in tears sooner rather than later.

Immediately after the final whistle, the Pharoah’s assistant coach Shawky Garib described this 2010 campaign as ‘the most difficult of all’.

And the longer this winning streak continues, the harder the task becomes for all concerned.

The first hurdle is to qualify for the 2012 tournament, and when the teams get there, one feels that only a victory will do for the adoring Egyptian public.

If they get knocked out early, or go deep into the next tournament only to lose late on – these could act as the tipping point for social unrest.

I believe all the circumstances are in place for an almighty fall. Those in power had better be prepared for when defeat finally comes because it will be a very difficult one to swallow for just about everybody.