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Many Think Football is Not a Game for Women’: Why Egypt is Falling Behind


The huge gulf between women’s and men’s football in Egypt – the most populous country in north Africa and the wider Arab world – can be measured by their sharply contrasting fortunes at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) and Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) – the continent’s top two national team tournaments.

While Egypt’s Pharaohs, record winners of the Afcon will be seeking an unprecedented eighth title in Ivory Coast in January, their female counterparts, the Cleopatras, managed by Mohamed Kamala and captained by Maha Al-Demerdash, failed to qualify for Morocco 2024, losing 4-0 on aggregate to Senegal in the final round of qualifying last week.

With a smattering of fans, mainly schoolchildren, there were barely a thousand people at the 30,000-capacity Al Salam stadium in Cairo. “People generally do not care about women’s football in Egypt,” says Inas Mazhar, one of the country’s leading football journalists and a Ballon D’or voter for 16 years.

“Many think football is not a game for women and have this archaic view that women playing football is not in tune with our femininity and culture. The prevailing negative attitude is a big barrier to the growth of the game here,” Mazhar says.

Having not qualified for a Wafcon since 2016 – and playing at only two editions since its inception in 1998, the Cleopatras will have to wait a while longer to end their tournament drought. Failing to qualify yet again is deeply upsetting for Sahar ElHawary, who, in 1999, was the first woman to become a referee in Egypt. She is generally acknowledged as the trailblazer for the development of women’s football in the country.

Her late father, Ezzat, was an international referee and a notable figure in Egyptian football and El Hawary played a key role in assembling the players that went to the inaugural Wafcon in 1998, in Nigeria, as well as the 2016 tournament in Cameroon.

Her quest to change the male-dominated face of Egyptian football began in 1993, a year after her father died. Recruiting well-known former footballers as her coaching staff, El Hawary went on a scouting mission throughout Egypt to find players to build a women’s team, accommodating them in her own house and paying wages from her own pocket.

“When I was young, I followed my father around when he was working and I saw all that he did. It gave me the passion for the game. Being his daughter helped me no doubt, because he created a reputation that I could build on. I faced a lot of challenges because no one took women’s football seriously. I had to do so many things on my own.

“I am certainly not happy with the current state of women’s football in Egypt. I left the Egyptian FA board about seven years now. Things should be much better. There needs to be better planning.”

Egypt line up before the Wafcon qualifier against Senegal.
Egypt line up before the Wafcon qualifier against Senegal. Photograph: FSF

Attempts to speak to Kamala and some of the players regarding the state of the game in Egypt were rebuffed. “Everyone has refused at the present time to conduct any interviews, due to the media ban on the team [because of missing out on Wafcon]. There will be financial fines imposed on them if they speak to the media,” said the team spokesperson, Mohamed El-Sayegh.

The 16-team Egyptian women’s league began in 2000. Wadi Degla are the reigning champions but interest from fans is pitiful and there is no sponsorship for the league.

With the Confederation of African Football, Caf, making the formation and active ownership of a women’s team a condition for being eligible to play in the men’s Champions League, leading clubs such as Al Ahly and Zamalek are now compelled to develop women’s teams.

It is yet another generation of the El Hawary clan, Omar Mohamed Abdallah, Sahar’s son, who has taken up the challenge of developing the next generation of women’s players, through his AIMZ Girls Football Academy, which began in 2014.

Abdallah says it has 800 girls from across the country. “AIMZ has started out with organising school football tournaments in 2013, for international schools all over Cairo, for both boys and girls. After our first tournament we found a lot of good talent that did not have the platform to play football so we decided to create this platform by inviting all the girls who participated in our tournament and took it from there.

“We started out with one branch in east Cairo and then from the second year we had a branch in the east and west of Cairo.”

But without the Egyptian FA having a master plan for the overall development of the women’s game, and the discipline to implement it – like their Moroccan counterparts who reached the final of the 2022 Wafcon and became the first Arab team to qualify for a World Cup, reaching the last 16 this year – systemic, organised growth of the women’s game in the Arab world’s most populous country will remain a mirage.

Source: The Guardian