Perhaps it is obvious to say that the Arab public eagerly followed the Egyptian national football team in the African Cup of Nations tournament that ended recently in Ghana and that was won by the Egyptian team. This “viewership” was the result of an overwhelming desire to cling on to a glimpse of hope in order to bring back smiles to millions of faces that for many years have only seen terrorism, war and poverty.
Arabs experienced this small share of “happiness” and saw that such joy may be a result of a simple collective act that surpasses the numerous slogans that are spread here and there.
A friend called me from Egypt and he could not believe the performance, spirit, persistence and willpower demonstrated by the Egyptian national team under the leadership of Coach Hassan Shehata. He said, “I’m sure that Hassan Shehata is going to be the next Egyptian prime minister and that he could deal with problems of increased prices, inflation, shanty towns, traffic, housing, spinsterhood, illegal immigration, the chaos of fatwas [religious rulings], heat rash and obesity.”
I replied saying, “Don’t you think that you’re exaggerating slightly?” He answered, “Yes, I am exaggerating but we haven’t seen any group effort like that demonstrated by the national football team since the Pharaohs built the second pyramid.”
Shehata is now perceived by people as a problem solver and a solution to all troubles and is viewed in a favourable light to a large extent. What the Egyptians have experienced recently was similar to what the Saudis went through when they won the Asian Cup for the first time in 1984 under the leadership of their national coach Khalil al Zayani who became a legend in his country. Tunisians also shared the same experience during their tremendous performance in the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina under their established coach Abdelmajid Chettali.
People are eager to cling on to hope; they are thirsty for joyful news amid the plethora of despondent and depressing news. It used to be said that former President Gamal Abdel Nasser used to offer Egyptian people “fool” [beans] for breakfast, “football” for lunch and “Omm Kolthoum” for dinner. This seems accurate since sport, most notably football, has always been a way to divert people’s attention, to occupy them and to absorb their energies. Revolutionary regimes used this approach in South America and Africa and it clearly succeeded. But today, football has become a comprehensive economic and social industry. It has become a mirror that reflects the cultures of different nations and their sincerity in taking part in international competitions; therefore, there is no difference between it and other elements of production. It has actually become, without doubt, a method of development for nations, mentally and physically, to join the international battle and advance oneself.
Yet the moment of happiness that Arabs witnessed recently remains a moment of happiness that came after a long wait. People will keep on watching and waiting for the “blessings” of Hassan Shehata or anyone else to stir up hope after a long time.