Game of thrones: The country’s footballers are sporting royalty in Africa

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Egyptians have a great enthusiasm for association football, borne of a long history of the sport in the country, the success of the national team and the intense rivalry that characterises the game at the domestic level. Paintings on Ancient Egyptian temples depict balls being kicked. The modern game arrived around the 1880s, when Egyptians played against British troops. Al-Sekka Al-Hadid, a club founded in Cairo in 1903, is thought to be the oldest in the Middle East. It was formed by Italian and British workers, and today has a modest existence in the third tier of the domestic league. The Egyptian Football Association was founded in 1921, following the national side’s first international appearances at the 1920 Olympics in Belgium.

PHARAOHS & HEROES: The national team is historically the most successful on the continent, having won the African Cup of Nations (ACN) a record seven times, most recently in 2010. In the final in Luanda, Angola, Egypt defeated Ghana with a goal from Mohamad Nagy, affectionately known as “Gedo” or “Grandad”. Egypt has only once been defeated in an ACN final, and has been a semi-finalist a further six times. It was a shock, therefore, that the Pharaohs (as they are known) failed to qualify for the 2012 tournament, coming bottom of their group. The failure has variously been blamed on lack of motivation, the improvement of rival teams and an aging squad. But few doubt that Egypt will be back with a vengeance before long; at time of press, the side had made a strong start to qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Egypt’s record in that tournament is rather less happy, having qualified only twice, and with no victories to the side’s name in the cup proper.

No review of Egyptian football could go without a mention of Hossam Hassan, the national side’s all-time leading scorer, with 69 goals in 169 caps in his long international career, from 1985 to 2006. The bullet-headed Hassan has three ACN titles to his name and also appeared in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. He starred for both of Egypt’s major clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek, and also had spells in Greece and Switzerland. Hassan has a few contenders for the title of Egypt’s greatest-ever footballer. Perhaps the leading candidate is goal-machine Mahmoud El Khatib, known as “Bibo”. The gentlemanly El Khatib spent his entire professional career, between 1972 and 1988, at Al Ahly, winning 10 league titles and five Egyptian cups, as well as the 1983 African Footballer of the Year award. Another legend still plying his trade is goal-scoring midfielder Ahmed Hassan, the most-capped player in world football history, with more than 180 appearances for the Pharaohs. Hassan played in Turkey and Belgium for 10 seasons before returning, first to Al Ahly and then Zamalek.

Other towering figures include Essam El Hadary, who has been playing professionally since 1993 and was voted best goalkeeper at three consecutive ACNs; Hany Ramzy, a powerful and pacy centre-back who spent most of his career in Germany and Switzerland; and the late midfielder Saleh Selim, another Al Ahly legend.

CLASH OF THE TITANS: Domestically, Egyptian football is dominated by the binary clash between Al Ahly and Zamalek, both of Cairo. Al Ahly is by far the country’s most popular club, with its crest seemingly emblazoned on every other car window, its shirts hanging in stalls and its pendants dangling from taxi rear-view mirrors across the country. “The people’s club” was founded in 1907 and has traditionally been identified with Egyptian nationalism (its name translates as “the National”) and the masses. By contrast, Zamalek, once named after King Farouk and now after a traditionally upmarket Nileside district of Cairo, has been considered the club of the bourgeoisie.

Al Ahly was Africa’s most successful club in the 20th century, and has won the majority of derbies against Zamalek (which is ranked second in the continent, an indicator of Egypt’s position as its leading football nation). These matches are intensely contested on the pitch and in the stands, and are now held at neutral venues to cool tensions between the fans. Egyptian football may have endured a difficult few years, but the passionate support that brings it to life is alive and well.

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