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Pharaohs, Hookers and Bafana

by Carlos Amato / 23.03.2011

“ZIMB’indaba madoda e-Ellis Park Stadium!” If you watched Bafana Bafana on the box during the heady Saturday afternoons of the mid-nineties, then Zama Masondo’s sonorous commentary catchphrase might still rouse some butterflies to toyi-toyi in your belly. A loose translation from the Zulu: “Things are getting hectic at Ellis Park Stadium, gentlemen.”

On Saturday night, things will get hectic again at Ellis Park. Hassan Shehata’s fabled Pharaohs, straight outta revolutionary Cairo, will invade the stadium of miracle and tragedy at around 8.15pm.

Their assignment is a critical Nations Cup 2012 qualifier: Pitso Mosimane’s brave new Bafana generation, under new skipper Steven Pienaar, are leading their group with four games remaining. But this test will reveal their substance – or lack thereof.

Bafana Bafana

There’s an old animus to the rivalry. Eight battles have been fought between Egypt and Bafana since 1992, and it’s a dead heat thus far: four victories and eight goals apiece. But six of those ties were friendlies, and Egypt have claimed the two competitive games, a clash in the 1996 Nations Cup group stage and the 1998 Nations Cup final in Burkina Faso.

Truth be told, the Pharaohs have a vastly superior pedigree. They have bossed this continent’s football for most of the last decade, winning three consecutive Nations Cup titles. They regard Bafana with discreet disdain. They must regard the Group G standings with fury.

To add an intriguing twist of bitterness, the Egyptians have lately come to despise the South African media and police, perhaps even the nation as a whole. Remember the “thieves and hookers” skandaal? The last time Shehata’s lads were in Joburg, to contest the 2009 Confed Cup, they reported the theft of cash from several players’ hotel rooms. This didn’t play well emzansi, amid an irksome barrage of foreign media missiles questioning South Africa’s ability to host a secure World Cup.

Enter the manic tabloid Sunday World, well known for “perambulating on the outskirts of veracity”, to put it in struggle English. The paper found an anonymous high-ranked copper who alleged the Pharaohs had recruited a bevy of Oxford Road hookers to help them celebrate their stunning win over Italy. Said magoshas, we were told, had taken the opportunity to gather some petty cash while the Pharaohs snoozed off their exertions.

The case met a quiet, diplomatic death, and only all-seeing Horus knows exactly what happened that cold June night at the Protea Wanderers. In any event, a demoralised Egypt were violated by Team USA that very Sunday, and went home to Cairo in bedraggled disgrace.

Some considerably more important events have come to pass in Egypt lately.

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011

The revolution that saw off Hosni Mubarak may well have motivated the Pharaohs. But it must have sapped their match fitness, due to the long suspension of the domestic Egyptian league, which has been idle since January. We will see what happens, but it’s a fair bet that Jozi’s 1753m of altitude will hit the Pharaohs’ lungs like a hammer blow come 70 minutes.

But there are deeper problems for the Pharaohs. The word in Cairo is that hardcore footie fans are turning against the lavishly paid Al Ahly and Zamalek stars, most of whom pocket more than R500 000 a month in wages, during desperate times for the masses. These idols are suddenly being recast as beneficiaries of the avaricious Mubarak order – and debt-ridden clubs are supporting calls for radical wage cuts.

Should the backlash lead to an exodus of internationals from the Egyptian league to the Gulf leagues and Europe, it might also trigger a long-term decline in the national side. Coach Shehata has been able to deliver remarkable tactical unity, largely because most of his starting lineup have hailed from just two clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek. If that mighty cohesion goes, the Pharaohs are likely to fade.

But surely the fever of liberation must inspire the team, just as it inspired Bafana in 1996? Don’t democracy and football brilliance correlate?

Not so much, actually. Some of the finest and most free-spirited teams in history – think Brazil of 1970 and Argentina of 1978 – have represented blood-soaked, dictatorial regimes. Freshly won democracy is messy, and it can allow sudden ethnic and political fissures to appear in a team, to the detriment of performance.

On Saturday night, we may see the beginning of the decline of an Egyptian generation who are arguably the world’s most talented side never to have contested a World Cup.

Just the names evoke the sheer power of the side: Mohamed Aboutreika, Ahmed Hassan, Amr Zaki, Emad Moteab, Mohamed Zidan, Essam El Hadary, Ahmed Fathy, Mido, Wael Gomaa, Hany Said, Hosny Abd Rabou. All monster players who will be remembered for decades to come.

Bafana will need some pyramidal bollocks to mummify these Pharaohs. But don’t be shocked if they do it.

Siphiwe Tshabalala

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