Why I Love (and Hate) The National Team

I’m kind of a big sports fan. I grew up in a big sporting family, and I grew up learning and playing soccer and basketball. I’m passionate about my sports and my teams, always have been. But I never knew how passionate someone could get, until January of 2008. January, for those of you who don’t follow African sports, is when the Africa Cup of Nations is held, every two years. In 2006, Egypt had won the title on home soil, and entering into the 2008 tournament, most people were predicting that Egypt would lose their crown. Ghana, the amazing hosts, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast were all viewed as stronger teams. In hindsight, they all were much stronger than Egypt, although the Egyptian teams from 2006-2011 played much more organized football than any other team in Africa. Not relying on a few star players, but outplaying their opponents with superior tactics and better team play. But maybe I’m a little biased. The point of all that was, to say, that I was in Africa for the 2008 African Cup. More specifically, I was in Egypt. And having lived all my life in America, I thought I knew passionate fans. I really did. Texas A&M have some inspiring fans. No one can accuse the Philadelphia Eagles fans of not caring. Green Bay is literally known for football, I’ve never heard anyone in my life ever talk about vacationing in Green Bay. And I can’t ever leave out the best fans in hockey, the Washington Capitals. My hometown lovable losers. So I knew passion, as defined by American standards, and while I expected the African Cup to be special, I never expected what I saw.

The Egyptian national team, nicknamed the Pharaohs, opened up their title defense against title favorites Cameroon. I didn’t think Egypt was going to win, but the entire country shut down in preparations for the game. And I mean SHUT DOWN. I’ll never forget walking to my grandmother’s house, where our family would gather to watch the Pharaohs, and seeing so many closed businesses. Empty streets, until you reach the packed cafes playing the game. National flags everywhere. In a country where people had little to ever look forward to, they all came together for that opening 90 minutes. Everyone talking, yelling, arguing about the match to come. Who should, and shouldn’t start? Can Egypt defend its title without its star striker, Mido? And then Egypt shut down. Because the game was on.

And the Pharaohs did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, they exceeded all expectations. And you don’t have to take my word for it.  Twenty minutes into their title defense, and Egypt was up 2-0 against Cameroon. 3-0 by the half, with Egypt surprising the title favorites with a 4-2 victory in the opening match. And with every goal, Egypt turned into the world’s largest festival. Within the walls of my grandmother’s small home gathered my family, in all its glory. No one could find a place to sit, and we were all sitting and standing on one another. But it didn’t matter. The cheers and screams were so loud I though we would get reported. Only for me to hear the screams coming from the people in the streets and from the neighbors and cafes. I’ll say this quite honestly. If you were in Egypt for the match, you would have known the exact score of the game, even if you went out of your way to avoid the match. Because with every goal, the streets would roar their approval. Every goal against us, the streets would roar with disapproval. It was phenomenal. And after all that, the Egyptian people weren’t even done showing off. Gathering at the major city squares, Egyptians would, in their thousands and thousands, stand together and celebrate their team’s success. It was like a super bowl parade, after every win. I’d never seen Egyptians happier. Until the next game. And the game after that.

Egypt went on to win their group, and in the knockout stages of the contest, they faced a respectable Angolan side. Angola played bravely, and while they gave Egypt a few scared, at the end of the day Egypt was too good. 2-1. On to the semis. And the single greatest sporting night of my life.

Egypt was to take on the Ivory Coast. With players like Yaya and Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba and Abdul Kader Keita, the Ivory Coast, nicknamed the Elephants, had the single best squad in the cup. Add to that the fact that they lost the 2006 final to Egypt on penalties, and you can see why people were expecting that this would be the night Egypt fell. Drogba’s revenge.

But it never happened. Instead, Egypt never showed up. In their place came a team of super aliens dressed in the Egyptian national team jersey. And they destroyed the Elephants. It was just mean.

I met up with my uncle about an hour before the game. I would often study with him, and as we were both excited for the match, our session that day was cut very short. However, despite the country preparing to shut down once again, he wasn’t optimistic. This was Didier Drogba, the king of Africa. This was the Elephants of the Ivory Coast. This was their revenge, and this was almost their home turf. We beat them in Cairo. But Ghana is country that borders the Ivory Coast. They would have the crowd, the familiar setting, and they were being inspired by arguably the best African player of his generation.

Egypt started out cautious, relying on Africa’s finest defense. But luck was on our side. It was on our side. Because at 11:40, Egypt struck gold. A deflected shot by Ahmed Fathi gave Egypt a lead that they took into the half. And as the nation around me prayed for our defense to keep out Drogba, the explosion came.

It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Egypt’s midfield started carving sculptures in the Ivorian defense. One goal, two goals, three goals. Egypt stunned Africa, as the Ivorians bowed out losing 4-1. And what happened next was remarkable. The only night that eclipses that night in my memory bank in February 11th, 2011. The night Mubarak fell. This was passion. Like nothing I’d ever felt before. Like nothing I’d ever experienced. These eleven players were a nation on their own. The joy that they brought to the Egyptian fans was not something I thought was ever possible in sports. This was football at its purest, its finest, its best. I fell so hard for the Pharaohs. Never had I ever wanted a title more. This wasn’t a franchise or a club. This was an entire nation. My nation. And in a rematch against Cameroon, Egypt came through. A late goal by the legend that is Mohammed Abu Treika gave Egypt the win. It gave Egypt the title. Back to back.

I returned to America a few months later, and while there, I got to witness Egypt win the African Cup for a record third straight time.

I love sports. I love soccer. I love the American national team. And I actually feel more American than Egyptian. But not when it comes to soccer. Because nothing matches the passion of the Egyptians when it comes to their Pharaohs.

Yet, despite all that love, the Pharaohs have me feeling more confused than anything nowadays. You see, Egyptian football is highly politicized. And the Egyptian tyrant, Abdelfattah El Sisi, is heavily linked to the Egyptian national team. The problem with this, is that the Pharaohs are often used a symbol of the government. And anyone who doesn’t like the government not only has no place among st the Pharaohs, but in Egyptian public life. Our president is our God. He is Horus. He is Ra. He is Jesus. And I’m not speaking in hyperbole here either. He has been called a Messiah by the Egyptian media. Muslim scholars have compared him to Moses. He is above the law, and above the people. We are the slaves, and he is a God. And this post just took a remarkably dark turn, but here’s the problem with the Pharaohs. They are his team. They represent him as much as they represent Egypt. Their success is his success.

During the 2014 World Cup I was able to enjoy the success of the American national team. As did conservatives, liberals, black people, white people, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, Irish Americans. The USMNT represented the American people. It didn’t matter whether you like Obama or not. Whether you were a Democrat or not. But in Egypt, it is different. And this is what I hate about the Pharaohs. I want to be a part of the most passionate fans in Africa. I want to support Egypt without having to worry about useless political slogans for a tyrant who oppresses and kills. But that won’t happen. The Pharaohs were Mubarak’s team. And as long as Egypt is run by a tyrant, their popularity will be exploited by whichever dictator sees himself as Egypt’s modern day Pharaoh.

So I’ll end my post like this. To sum up everything I just wrote, and to sum up everything I’ve felt:

Down with the Pharaoh, and up with the Pharaohs.



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