Football row: A civilized reaction

Reactions by both the Egyptian media and public to last week’s decisive Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifying match in Sudan have been nothing if not extreme. Since Egypt’s disappointing loss — and the post-match clashes between rival fans — the local media frenzy has only escalated. Protests have even been staged on the streets of Cairo by outraged Egyptians demanding revenge.

Prominent Egyptian Poet Gamal Bekhiet, meanwhile, has been a rare voice of reason. Unlike much of the Egyptian public, he puts blame for the episode squarely on the shoulders of Egypt’s sports media.

“Our sports media, which is considerably bigger and more influential than the Algerian media, began the ordeal by declaring war on Algeria prior to the game,” said Bekhiet. “Egypt dominates the Arabic-language media, which it mobilized to provoke the Algerians.”

He went on to note that the media provocations began before the actual match, in total disregard for the spirit of sportsmanship.“The sports media is ultimately responsible for what happened, along with those who tried to deny the fact that Egyptians threw stones at members of the Algerian team [upon their arrival to Egypt] before the earlier match in Cairo," he said.

Bekhiet criticized Egyptian sports announcers in particular for contributing to the frenzy. “These sportscasters are all ex-footballers whose knowledge is limited to football," he said. "Yet they behaved like generals waging a war. It was as if we were at war with Algeria."

Moreover, Behkiet pointed to video footage aired on Egyptian sports channels before the final match that featured an Algerian man warning that Egypt would "reap what it had sowed" and saying that Algerian fans attending the Sudan match should be "ready to fight." “Unfortunately, many people misinterpreted this footage and chose to hold it against all Algerians and not just the sports media,” said Bekhiet.

According to the poet, football — considered a national obsession by many — has been exploited by certain quarters with the aim of distracting the public from more pressing socio-political issues. "It’s as if a football victory will solve all our problems, from raw sewage in the streets to soaring unemployment rates,” he said, noting that there were numerous other issues of far greater importance in need of attention.

"All the money spent by businessmen to transport Egyptian fans to Sudan for the match could have been spent on developing one of Egypt’s innumerable shantytowns, vastly improving the everyday lives of hundreds of underprivileged people," he added.

In reaction to the post-match violence in Sudan, several prominent Egyptian commentators have called for boycotting Algerian products and events. Bekhiet, however, believes such hasty and emotional reactions to be counterproductive. “Next we’ll be boycotting Libya over a tennis match or Saudi Arabia over a basketball game,” he said. “We’re suffering from a national hallucination. Is our national history to be written in a football stadium?”

“The best way to deal with this is to try and express one’s opinion to the public," he added, noting that "many Algerian voices of reason have now begun to appear on the internet."

Bekhiet concluded by saying that Egypt should learn a lesson from the French media’s reaction to a similar situation. During last week’s World Cup qualifying match between France and Ireland, a French player touched the ball with his hand — in blatant violation of the first rule of football — in the process of scoring the winning goal. While the referee failed to note the infraction, French media condemned its national team, which it declared to be unworthy of the victory.

“This is a civilized reaction,” said Bekhiet.

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