In football-crazy Egypt, Ahmed Khawaga is one of the national team’s most devoted fans. But today even he feels the beautiful game is struggling to unite a deeply divided country.
On Tuesday, Egypt meets Guinea in the final round of qualifiers for the World Cup to be held in Brazil next year, and the Pharaohs have a chance of making it to the tournament for the first time since 1990.
A week ago, Egypt secured a place in the FIBA Basketball World Cup for the first time in two decades.
But despite the exciting prospects for the country’s national sports teams, few Egyptians are paying attention.
These days the traditionally football-mad nation is more focused on politics after two and a half years of turmoil that has left the country bitterly divided and dispirited.
Egypt’s national team has long cemented a sense of national unity, bringing together even the fiercest of rivals — fans of Cairo’s top football clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek.
But today, it would take much more than a football tournament to band Egyptians together after a deadly crackdown on Islamists that followed the military’s removal of president Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
The current “war on terrorism” launched by the army-installed authorities has dominated the headlines, amid security related problems in Cairo.
Khawaga — as he is known by supporters of Zamalek of which he is an active member — believes that “today, it’s impossible to regroup Egyptians behind their national team”.
In a turbulent two-and-a-half years, Egyptians have endured a revolution that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, 16 months of rocky rule by a military junta, and the overthrow of an elected Islamist leader.
Each phase was marred by clashes and deadly crackdowns that have left thousands of people dead.
“Sport doesn’t interest anyone anymore; people only care about politics now,” says Khawaga.
The manager of one Cairo cafe can hardly believe the new reality. His clients, all sports fans, are now glued to the news and political talk shows.
“In the past, you couldn’t put anything on the television that wasn’t football,” he says.
Crowds used to celebrate every Pharaohs victory.
But Egypt, who have clinched seven Africa Cup of Nations titles, failed to qualify for the two latest finals tournaments.
All the festivities now seem far away.
“How can I focus on football when my friends are being killed on the streets,” says Amr Lotfi, a sales assistant in the capital.
Zaki Abdel Fattah, the Pharaohs goalkeeping coach and deputy to American manager Bob Bradley, says the political conditions are “obvious”.
But he remains hopeful.
“To qualify for the World Cup would be a moment of joy that would reunite all Egyptians,” he says.
So far, events on the ground have frequently disrupted the Egyptian league schedule, and international matches in Egypt are played with no spectators, draining the game of its spirit and causing enthusiasm to wane.
Under Bradley’s watch, the Pharaohs will be playing out of the spotlight again on Tuesday.
For security reasons, the match against Guinea will be played without any spectators at El-Gouna, a resort on the Red Sea almost 500 kilometres (300 miles) south of Cairo.
Sports pages in Egypt’s newspapers have been shrinking each day to make space for political news as events continue to shake the country.
Sometimes, politics and football become intertwined.
In February, in several Suez canal cities, thousands took to the streets defying night-time curfews imposed by Morsi after death sentences were handed down to locals for their involvement in a deadly football stadium riot in 2012 in which 74 people were killed.
Since 2011, hardcore football fans known as the “ultras” had used their training and organisation to lead protests against the military council that ruled Egypt after Mubarak and before Morsi was elected with large turnouts and shock slogans.
Recently, popular Egyptian striker Mohammed Aboutrika was slammed by many for going against the popular current and taking a stand against the military’s crackdown on Islamists.
But if he were to qualify with the national team for the World Cup, the winds may once again blow in his favour.