Cross posted from The New York Times.
CAIRO — At 7 p.m. Sunday evening, an identical argument broke out in front of more than a dozen television screens in Borsa, the outdoor café-lined haven of downtown Cairo. At issue: whether to watch the second half of Spain versus Italy in the European Championship or switch to the start of Egypt’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Guinea.
Come major international soccer matches, the roughly two-by-three block pedestrian-only maze of alleyways, collectively referred to as Borsa after the nearby stock exchange, morphs into a fan’s paradise. Hundreds of spectators, puffing sheesha and sipping tea, crowd around the raft of televisions and projectors suspended from seemingly every nook of its stone-paved passages. Most nights, all offer the same spectacle. Sunday, however, presented a conundrum.
Outside one café on Elwi Street, where an audience seated in plastic purple chairs formed a small semicircle around a flat-screen TV, the pro-Euro voices easily drowned out those advocating for national pride. Maged Essa, 28, who came to root for Italy, approved of the decision. “Egypt is not an interesting match like Italy versus Spain,” he said, adding, “People will be interested when Egypt gets closer. … But they’re playing Guinea.”
Down the block, another café went with the Egypt game, drawing a moderate-size crowd as the Pharaohs kicked off their second qualifier. Directly across the alley, a dueling TV screened the European match. Paused for a moment in the no-man’s-land between the two, a pair of friends debated where to sit. “Why do you want to watch this?” one ribbed the other, motioning toward the Egypt match. “The Euro game is so much better.”
That seemed to be the consensus around Borsa, where TVs tuned into the European match comfortably outnumbered those set to the national team’s contest by a factor of three or 4 to 1.
As Egypt and Guinea eased into gear in the late-afternoon West African heat, the two European heavyweights turned on the attacking flare after a cautious first half. Necks from spectators taking in the Egypt broadcast craned to catch the action from across the alley, where the audience oohed and aahed every scoring chance and flash of skill from Italy and Spain’s cast of international superstars.
Fifteen minutes in, Italy grabbed the opener. Spain replied three minutes later. With all eyes gravitating toward the burgeoning thriller out of Poland, a whistle went in the Egypt game. Penalty for Guinea! Eyeballs darted back across the alley. Curses and insults were hurled at the screen as replays showed the foul. Then more as Guinea converted to take a surprise 1-0 lead.
The next 25 minutes brought no more goals. Italy and Spain finished 1-1 and Egypt entered the locker room a goal down. As televisions switched over to the halftime coverage of the Egypt game, Mohamed Atif, 20, explained why he had chosen to spend the last 45 minutes watching Egypt. The national team is an object of pride for Egyptians, he said, adding that he was really enjoying watching the side play under its new American head coach.
“Egypt with Bob Bradley has new look,” Atif said. “We love this very much. We feel he’s an Egyptian man.”
Atif’s friend, Abdullah Loay, who joined him at halftime from across the alley, said he did not mind watching either match, but noted, pointing at the screen that had been showing the European game: “Their match is better. You see soccer here. In Egypt, not so much.”
Of course, the preference for the glamour of European soccer is not a phenomenon limited to Egypt. From the United States to remote corners of the developing world, millions of fans routinely opt for satellite relays of England’s Premier League and Champions League matches over local action.
But in Egypt these days, the rationale runs deeper than the allure of the European game. The year-and-a-half since the revolution has not been kind to Egyptian soccer. The national team’s reputation was badly tarnished by players and coaches’ apathetic — and sometimes downright hostile — stance toward the uprising. Egypt faltered on the field as well, failing to even qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament it had won on the previous three occasions.
The Port Said disaster followed in February, when a riot at a league match left more than 70 dead and led to the cancellation of all domestic competition this season. In the aftermath of the riot, the country’s interior ministry refused to secure home matches for the national team, forcing it to conduct its preparations for qualifying abroad. The interior ministry has agreed to secure qualifiers — Egypt played Mozambique earlier this month in Alexandria — but only behind closed doors.
Under those circumstances, and amid the political upheaval that continues to grip Egypt, the national team has slipped from the public’s attention to a degree exceedingly rare in this soccer-mad country. “People are not interested in World Cup qualifying because of the revolution,” Essa said. “Everything has been stopped.”
Some fans were forgoing soccer altogether. About an hour before the match in Tahrir Square, mere blocks from Borsa, a protester who identified himself as Faris said: “The revolution is more important than football right now. Because there’s no stability to allow us to watch football.”
As the second half began, though, all eyes in Borsa were fixed intently on Egypt’s comeback bid. Two goals within 10 minutes from midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika sent the crowds up and down the alleys into delirium. Egypt seemed to have sealed a second consecutive victory. But then Guinea struck back with just two minutes remaining in regular time. Egypt looked consigned to sharing the points.
There was a final twist left in the tale, however. Forward Mohamad Salah, 19, burst into the penalty box four minutes into stoppage time to curl home a left-footed winner. Borsa erupted again.
Back at the same café, Essa appeared to have caught a bit of early World Cup fever. He felt Egypt had been somewhat lucky to come away with all three points, but was anticipating the next steps, as Egypt vies for its first World Cup berth since 1990.
“I feel happy,” he said, nodding. “Now, I want to see the rest of qualifying.”