By Shady Negm, Special to The Tablet
CAIRO, Egypt – Last September, Fernando Sanz, the director of La Liga Middle East and North Africa, announced the launch of a youth academy in Egypt to train and scout Egyptian footballers for Spanish teams.
The Spanish football premier league, La Liga, gives hope to lots of Coptic Christian children who dream of becoming professional football players like Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian striker who plays for Liverpool.
“We aim to produce a future Salah or two,” said Sanz, former Real Madrid defender, during the press conference.
The academy, which opened in Cairo early last month, has already enrolled 75 prospects and employs only foreign coaches, which gives hope to Coptic children who complain of discrimination in sports.
Egyptians are very enthusiastic fans of football, commonly known as soccer in the U.S., as evidenced by cafés full of people during matches, and even during the friendly matches of the national football team. Looking at the fans, there is no way to distinguish between Muslim and Christian Egyptians; everyone supports the team that plays in the name of Egypt.
Fans, But Not Players
However, the reality is that Copts – Christian Egyptians – are limited to playing the role of fans, simply because Egyptian clubs reject Christian players from joining their teams as soon as they hear their names.
Abanoub Samir is one of those players. He tried to join Al-Ittihad Club at age 16. When he applied, the coach told him “your name (a Coptic saint’s name) will cause us a problem.” They told him to go by the name Mostafa Ibrahim, a Muslim name, but he refused and lost his chance for a contract.
There are tens of stories like this about Coptic Christian athletes who have been rejected by sports teams regardless of their performance, but rather because they are Christians.
Last June, Coptic Solidarity (CS), a non-governmental organization working to defend minorities in Egypt, submitted a report directly to FIFA officials delineating the rampant discrimination against Coptic footballers at all levels within Egypt, according to a statement on the CS website.
Coptic Solidarity said: “There are currently 540 players in the top-flight soccer clubs in Egypt, and that number includes only one Coptic footballer. The Egyptian Olympic Mission to Brazil in 2016 was completely devoid of Copts, and the same applies to the Egyptian National Team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”
In a rare public statement last April, former Egypt international striker Ahmed Hossam, known as Mido, who played for some of Europe’s football clubs, including Tottenham, confessed that there is discrimination against Coptic players.
Appearing on DMC Egyptian TV, Mido said, “There’s a lot of people in Egypt who are racists over religion or color. We must confront them.”
In asserting his claims, he wondered how in the history of football in Egypt there were only five Christian players at the top level.
“This is a problem which exists and there must be a confrontation,” said Mido, who is Muslim.
The report Coptic Solidarity submitted to FIFA on June 17, contained ample sources and testimonies by moderate Muslims corroborating the reality of the ongoing discrimination. It also included a sampling of 25 cases reported to Coptic Solidarity by Coptic footballers.
Mido wasn’t the first to talk about such prejudice against Copts in sports. A lot of moderate Muslim journalists have written about the problems, especially in the era of social media where more Christian players talk about the discrimination that ended their dreams of playing professionally.
Muslims Speaking Out
The latest Muslim who wrote about the problem is Tawfeek Diab in an article on the Alhurra website. He calls on Salah to support Copts and work toward preventing religious intolerance against Christians in Egypt. Diab said that if Salah was a Christian, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play football in Egypt, and noted that competence is the only criteria to play in the west.
While some Copts see La Liga academy as a hope because the administration and foreign coaches won’t discriminate against the Christian children, others say it’s very expensive and can’t be a solution or alternative.
In email to The Tablet, Coptic Solidarity board member, Magdi Khalil, noted many cases in which a prominent commentator and former players talked about the problem, including the former player and sports commentator Khalid al-Ghandour who mentioned a racist incident against a Copt in Minya Sports Club in March 2016.
Shenouda Wahba talked to Al-Ghandour TV program on the Dream TV channel complaining that the coach asked his relative to convert to Islam in order to be allowed to play in the football club.
Khalil said that Coptic Solidarity urges FIFA to launch an independent investigation into this rampant discrimination against Copts, and to call the Egyptian government to take concrete steps not only to rectify this situation, but also ensure that Coptic footballers are afforded equal opportunities to pursue their dreams and talent to the highest level possible.
Coptic Christians, who make up more than 10 percent of Egypt’s 100 million people, have long been the target of sectarian attacks and discrimination in work and other fields. Forty percent of Egypt’s population is under age 18, the country’s state statistics agency reported in 2017.
In 2011, Egypt’s government proposed an anti-discrimination amendment to its criminal code, but it has not been passed.