Giant Russian dolls in Egyptian national team jerseys

Reflections on World Cup fever from Cairo and my Canadian immigrant father's Egyptian football nationalism.

Image: Dana Smillie, The National

In 1990 my father pulled out a small cream-colored television set that had been gathering dust in storage. He had purchased the TV in 1977 to watch Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, where he delivered a powerful speech to the Knesset. Determined to raise their children in a TV-free household, they successfully hid the illusive tube for several years before finally caving in the year Egypt made it to the World Cup for the second time, more than 55 years since first qualifying.

Football is deeply engrained in the social and cultural fabric of the country. Everyone has a story. For my father, who was born in a village in the Governorate of Sharqia—north of Cairo—in the early 1940s, this meant brick goal posts and a football made from an overstuffed sock. Starting at an early age, the boys in the village would kick off their sandals, using them instead to demarcate the boundaries of a makeshift pitch. The women, including my grandmother, would sit outside their homes preparing molokhia and bamia (okra), while the boys scrimmaged. As they grew older, they graduated to a small ball. Not long after the equipment upgrade, my father kicked the football out of bounds and directly at Om Ali’s (Mother of Ali, not to be confused with the delicious dessert) face, and she proceeded to cry inconsolably. My father moved to Canada in 1969, but clearly the football fervor that runs through Egyptian veins stayed with him.

This year, as was the case nearly three decades ago, the Egyptian diaspora will congregate to cheer on their national team. At home, for months the excitement has been palpable, and expressed in an almost painfully Egyptian fashion: Flags everywhere, unfortunate murals, rampant copyright infringement, and giant Russian dolls wearing Egypt’s national team jersey. Egyptians are praying for a better showing than last time around, where they scored a solitary goal, and a win eluded them. But optimism is high, with Liverpool’s star player Mohamed Salah at the helm.

This time, audiences may have new mediums, but the dizzying dedication and fervent national pride remain very much in tact.

Further Reading

Game of Chicken

Reliving the epic quarterfinal match between reigning European football champions, France, and 1983 Copa America runners-up, Brazil, at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.