It has been a rather subdued World Cup so far in Maadi, Cairo. The cafes are full but by no means crowded. This World Cup has been a gem of a tournament, with average goals scored hovering around three per game.
But it is not attracting local attention in our neighborhood. Most space is empty when the matches begin. Throughout shisha smoking and backgammon hold more interest. Only a few hard core supporters cry out for a goal.
The television announcers are animated, however. A few days ago as the Russia-Algeria match crept to a close, with a 1-1 draw securing advancement for the North Africans, the Arabic boomed with each crucial clearance:
Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!
But the final whistle prompted nary a cheer from the audience. There was no visible support for Russia, but little excitement for Algeria, either. While BeIn Sports, recently re-branded away from similarity to the al-Jazeera chain of stations, urged on their Arab (Muslim?) brethren, Egyptians present chattered, smoked, threw dice, or otherwise walked away at the completion of the match, as they have done for all others I have watched so far.
Egypt is not exactly a bastion for Arab nationalism, and the two national teams have a history of dislike, filled with riots and bus stonings. Algeria booted Egypt from qualification in the 2010 World Cup.
But Egypt perhaps should be such a bastion, for Nasser was the revered leader of Arab nationalism, and current president Sisi has been cast in his image. But Sisi has also fostered an Egypt-centricity against the alleged global machinations of the Muslim Brotherhood and world community. Right now, Egyptians just hope the wars engulfing their neighbors do not cross over their borders. There is a general pox on the Arab Spring in general and what it has wrought.
Algeria bears no crime in this analysis, but local Maadi residents have lent them little love.
It is still interesting to watch the ex-Jazeera broadcast celebrate. Americans are used to a local broadcast openly rooting for the home team, but would see as improper for an American announcer to openly cheer on England, say, against an African squad.
BeIn Sports is a creation of the Qatar media conglomeration, which apparently does not share the same sense of neutrality, or political correctness, or whatever this should be called. They also stand accused of overt support for the Muslim Brotherhood, earning them the animosity of millions of Egyptians. The recent sentencing of al-Jazeera journalists has been widely condemned internationally, but in local perspective the channel actively fabricated events.
Local residents highlight this video from an area near the bloody dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, in which Islamist youth activist Abdel Rahman Ezz describes airplanes shooting live ammunition on the protestors. It is shown on the Rassd network, accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood arm, but whether or not such videos are tied to Jazeera journalists in question is a matter of contention. Certainly the judge believed so, or made it out to be, amid the hours of other completely non-related footage in their possession.
Whether or not al-Jazeera distaste plays into local soccer sensibilities is questionable, but as they have the rights to the Arabic broadcast of the World Cup, there is little other choice. Besides Algeria there is no other Arab team, and fellow Muslim Iran is also seen as Brotherhood-sympathetic, Shia in faith, and a poor team regardless. If anything, neighborhood Egyptians have been rooting for the Africans. Ghana in particular has won their favor, perhaps in direct competition to the United States with whom they were grouped.
Earlier that evening they were disappointed, as Ghana bowed out humbly while America advanced. But the reaction was still the same. Shisha, backgammon, and nonchalant departure. Maybe in the later knockout rounds, when powerhouse teams are likely to meet, local excitement will increase.
Perhaps. But even then, no matter how much God’s power is invoked by BeIn announcers in favor of Algeria versus Germany in their Round of 16 match today, Egyptians appear happy just for the distraction. Life has been hard, grand hopes have been crushed or exposed, and all they have left is Egypt.
And Egypt is not in the World Cup. Allahu Akbar, anyway.