Watching the World Cup matches in Egypt has been an experience. Games here are 2:30, 5:00, and 9:30pm, so while some fall during working hours, others have been able to be viewed. I have made less of it than I would have liked, but so has Egypt, for a reason to be explained.
One reason that Egyptians are having a hard time getting excited about the World Cup is that so few games are on television. Al-Jazeera (yes, the al-Jazeera many Americans complain about for supposed anti-US bias) has an extensive sports network, and they have bought the rights to Arabic language World Cup broadcasts. They have worked out a deal with network Egyptian television to grant access to some of the games, but they are not contractually obliged to say which ones. Egyptians without the resources to shell out the cash for the al-Jazeera package (most) can only hope their favorite nations will be televised that night.
For me, without a television at all let alone al-Jazeera, this mean going to the trendy restaurants or coffee shops populating Maadi which can afford an al-Jazeera subscription. For the cost of a plate of French fries or desert (I hate buying drinks – water is the best thing for you and provided free by God), I get to watch whenever I choose.
Julie, I, and the girls went this afternoon to a favorite trendy restaurant and watched the compelling US comeback against Slovenia. For the evening’s game – England vs. Algeria – given that I was getting a little tired of French fries, though, I set out on my own in hope of finding a traditional Egyptian coffee shop that perhaps was carrying al-Jazeera. Fortunately, find it I did.
At 9:30pm the crowd was a bit sparse, but within the first five minutes of the game the patio of the coffee shop had filled with patrons, all interested in watching the match, given the presence of the lone Arab squad to qualify for the tournament.
Here is the twist, however. Most Egyptian soccer fans hate Algeria’s national team. Egypt and Algeria finished tied in their World Cup qualifying group, and Algeria won the subsequent playoff match. The matches, though, were accompanied by nationalist fervor which spilled out of the stadium into the lives of normal people. The Algerian team bus was pelted with stones and their embassy in Cairo needed to be protected by riot police. Egyptians in Algeria, meanwhile, were being assaulted and a large Egyptian telecom company suddenly, mysteriously, was assessed millions of dollars in back taxes. Though Algeria edged Egypt for World Cup participation, Egypt returned the favor and walloped Algeria in the African Nations Cup on their way to their third consecutive title. Some of these reflections can be read here, here, and here.
Needless to say, with Egypt missing from the tournament local fervor has been muted. Egyptians are still soccer-crazy, and love watching their favorite stars no matter who they play for. So whereas one might have expected an outpouring of Arab brotherhood support for Algeria in their match against England, understood as an American lackey supporting neo-colonialist enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was nary a cheer when Algeria came close to goal. Every English touch, however, brought on cheers of expectation. As Algeria, surprisingly, carried the run of play, the atmosphere was rather tense and subdued.
Again, oddly, though the only foreigner in the crowd, and a Western Christian at that, I was also the only supporter of Arab Muslim Algeria. I like England, generally, and though I have nothing against Algeria, I was disappointed to see them put Egypt out of the Cup. An Algeria win or draw, however, would better the chances to see the United States advance to the knockout stages of the World Cup, predicated on a victory over Algeria six days from now. My support was silent, but real. The 0-0 draw at the conclusion was not an indicative byline for what had been an enjoyable and competitive match, but was among the best results possible for US rooting interests.
The telling tale will come in six days. The United States will play Algeria with both teams needing a win to advance to the round of sixteen. America does not draw the vitriol of the Arabs currently as it did during the Bush administration, but President Obama is not meeting the high expectations he set for a change in US policy when he spoke in Cairo early in his presidency. Overall, the US image in Egypt remains poor.
Will Sam’s Army receive the brunt of this geopolitical frustration? In the Arab world at large I would put their chances at 50-50. There is a good and legitimate chance that Arab solidarity backs the Algerians with just a little extra mustard. Still, since the US is not dominant in soccer the national team does not generally suffer from a backlash, and Arabs are generally quite astute at separating their opinion of government from their estimation of a person, or in this case, team.
In Egypt, however, hopefully, the coffee shop crowd may be composed entirely of Yankees. During the founding of the Egyptian Republic in the 1950s President Nasser mesmerized the masses with cries for Arab nationalism. The children of his revolution now only imbibe the fumes of his vision, dashed upon the realities of World Cup qualifying. Politics, it is said, makes for strange bedfellows. Sport, it seems, can do the same.