Nestled in the very heart of Ismailia – one of Egypt’s largest inland Suez Canal port cities – the appropriately named Ismailia Stadium features two murals of discernible note. The first, upon approach to the otherwise uninspiring 18,525-capacity structure, depicts sportspeople of seven different disciplines – bronze designs of boxers, swimmers, athletes and jockeys past surrounding a trio of predominantly yellow and turquoise-festooned male figures in a gymnast in full splits, a basketballer approaching a slam dunk and footballer charging with the ball at his feet – under the logos of both Ismaily Sporting Club itself, and FIFA. The other, effectively the only shield for fans in the otherwise uncovered, detached East Stand from dust torrents and chilling evenings in the Egyptian North-East, is divided into three segments of a wall-like stone structure; a central motif carved as so to present the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and other iconic ancient national monuments alongside the state’s flag within a central laurel wreath flanked by two slighter slabs with various yellow-shirted and turquoise-shorted players, each performing a unique physical feat, interspersing traditional hieroglyphic and pillared imagery. Both considerable structures connote the fundamentals of this institution’s heritage; visitors to the ground, who may well be greeted with a vociferous matchday spirit, need not possess prior knowledge of the club’s many nicknames prior to kick-off, in either البرازيليون (the Brazilians), برازيل أفريقيا (the Brazilians of Africa), برازيل مصر (the Brazilians of Egypt), المانجا (the Mango) or, most sincerely and commonly amongst local supporters, الدراويش, the Dervishes, a term given to religious figures highly respected for their guidance, particularly to the poverty-stricken, of Sufi Islam ascetics and attainment of God, primarily through the physical exertion of Sama.
Ritualistic, and deeply devout in their principles as a club, Ismaily only uphold the values of their community; a city ranked only 12th by population in Egypt’s sparse, literally deserted, demographics, and known locally as ‘the city of beauty and enchantment’. Formed only in 1924, a respective 13 and 17 years behind the traditional national forces of Giza’s Zamalek SC (12 Egyptian Premier League titles, 32 runners-up finishes) and Cairo’s Al-Ahly SC (39 league championships, 11 second-place results), Ismaily’s relatively youthful stature is quite fitting, given Ismailia itself only came to fruition in 1863, in the first success of the expansion of Suez Canal construction projects by ambitious Khedive (viceroy or governor) Isma'il Pasha; after whom the city is named. Nor do their historic achievements fail to bely their presumed constraints; having lofted three elite-tier titles, in 1966-67, ’90-91 and 2001-02, they have established themselves as the nation’s third side with six seasonal runs to second and 17 third-place returns in their 94-year account, and the Egyptian Premier League’s seven decades of action. For a 305,000-populated urban conurbation that has been perpetually encroached upon, first by British and French occupants in Imperial rule and during World War One’s Battle of Romani, and later by Israeli forces in the 1973 Yom Kippur War’s Battle of Ismailia, they certainly have spirit etched within their identity.
Fatally afflicted, however, in recent seasons by the gradually escalating economic monopoly of Giza and Cairo’s metropoles, the club has finished only as high as 6th in four consecutive seasons, and five of the last six (technically even so in the 2013-14 season, when they finished fourth in Group 2 of a divided division), with their Group 2 runners-up rank behind Zamalek counting for nothing in the 2012-13 after the season was suspended at the knockout stage by the national coup d’état that removed President Mohamed Morsi from power. Not since 2010-11 have they graced the end-of-season top three, since 2009-10 qualified for continental competition (if discounting the 2014 appearance earned from an unfinished previous season) or since 2008-09 finished second, when they did so equal on points, and only separated by goal difference, with champions Al-Ahly. Their financial model, revealingly, requires the regular sale of prodigious youngsters in order to even compete with the clubs that will, generally, themselves make these exploitative purchases to strengthen their own causes. In recent examples, centre-backs Ahmed Hegazi and Ali Gabr – both Ismailia-born – were offloaded to the tune of €1.5 million and a 15% sell-on fee (one that would not be enacted, with the now-West Brom player released by Fiorentina at the end of his contract in 2015) and just £23k respectively, while Ghanaian striker John Antwi departed to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Shabab for £1.76 million, and Egyptians Amr Soleya and Marwan Mohsen to the UAE’s Al-Shaab for £743k and Al-Ahly for £900k respectively. It is, perhaps, surprising that given this, it required no evidently profitable sales this term to lead a title charge; at the time of writing, leading the Premier Division by a single point above Al-Ahly, who possess a single game in hand.
As has been outlined by the post-Communist dissolution demise of Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade and Honvéd, in addition to the present travails of an arguably small-minded Southampton outfit perhaps more fixated on their business plan than coherent footballing vision, this form for sporting achievement is rarely profitable at the peak of domestic competition – unless replicated across national culture. And nor, arguably, should it be for sides like Ismaily, regardless of the possible romanticism of a tale defying economic circumstances, particularly in the modern age. Where the 22-year-old Robert Prosinečki, 26-year-old Darko Pančev, 25-year-old Dejan Savićević and 23-year-old Dejan Petković – all second-generation Belgrade players, in the sense that they were recruited as youngsters from lesser Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin and Serbian clubs in the late 1980s and early ‘90s Yugoslav First League – were seized upon by Real Madrid, Inter and AC Milan, and Bucharest’s fall from grace was ushered in by the departures of Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu and Ilie Dumitrescu to Madrid, Foggia and Spurs, Egypt have Ismaily. El Daraweesh have, in the past decade alone, suffered the loss of Ahmed Fathy, Sayed Moawad, Sherif Abdel-Fadil, Abdallah El Said, the aforementioned Hegazi and Ahmed Khairy; individuals who, with the exception of a 29-year-old Moawad, had their best years ahead of them at the age of 26 or under, who have established themselves as competent internationals with the majority of their sum 290 caps achieved post-Ismaily, and who have all since gone on to play at least two title-winning seasons at Al-Ahly. This exodus, in practice, equates to a single, potentially pivotal, talent shedding the constraints of a largely third-place existence in every season’s attempts to not only rebuild, but also progress; detrimental to Ismaily pride, physical capabilities and stability even in the emergence of another finely-tuned prodigy.
What is perhaps more alarming to a cause that, as we referenced earlier, has struggled largely in sixth place over the past five to six domestic seasons, is the correlating brief employment of more experienced, perhaps rejuvenated first-team figures; quickly recruited by Al-Ahly or Zamalek if deemed reliable performers. Hany Saïd, who arrived a 26-year-old former Bari, Fiorentina and Mons centre-back approaching the peak of his powers in 2006, left two years later for Zamalek, where in 2010 he would end his 74-time-capped international career; the iconic goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, in return to the nation where he made 412 Al-Ahly appearances after a forgettable spell at Sion, could only make 14 appearances in 2009-10 before being attracted by Zamalek, and repeated his single-season tenure, as a 41-year-old, in 2014-15 before departing to the 13-year-old Wadi Degla club, now managed by Mido; striker Marwan Mohsen fulfilled just a single season of his three-year contract after reviving a career that had stalled, with no goals in 20 appearances, at Portuguese outfit Gil Vicente, to switch to Al-Ahly in 2016, where he has since scored just one goal in a mere nine appearances. Evidently, none of these individuals was content with continental ambitions and mid-table realities; their patience had elapsed, conveniently disregarding the role of Ismaily in offering them a reprise from careers derailed in Europe, and satisfying every one of their personal desires in applying an effective personal coaching regime. They could not endure the humiliation of trailing behind sides not of the calibre of Port Said’s Al-Masry, Alexandria’s Al Ittihad – two fellow clubs in Egypt’s traditional top five, with reputations as the vehemently anti-colonist, possibly nationalist establishment and the side equipped with Africa’s second-largest stadium in the 86,000-capacity Borg al-Arab – but of Smouha SC, the aforementioned Wadi Degla and Misr Lel-Makkasa SC, a trio who had each only been promoted to the Premier Division as recently as 2009-10, and who were the minority clubs of Alexandria and Cairo, and who hailed from the cultural city of Faiyum, respectively.
For all of the sentiments towards any sporting achievement founded in teamwork, football can often display a callously heretic behaviour. The value of any individual, particular those of the respected capabilities of the aforementioned sextuplet, is pronounced as essentially fundamental to the operation of any coherent modern footballing institution by exactly these examples. What now poses Ismaily, courtesy of a projection of these trends on the managerial industry, is yet another reconstruction task, while immersed in an irreversible pursuit of the league title.
Ironically, in a season where they had prevented any significant, or even profitable, playing departures, El Daraweesh were afflicted with the departure of French manager Sébastien Desabre to the rapidly advancing Ugandan national team on 28 December. With Aboutaleb El Essawi, who coached the side temporarily prior to Desabre’s appointment, hurriedly appointed with “no time to hire a foreign coach”, the ramifications are, as yet, unknown. Perhaps, for a helmsman that, despite being only 41, had earlier led sides in eight different nations (France’s non-league ESC Rocheville, the most successful side in Ivorian football in ASEC Mimosas, Cameroon’s CS Garoua, ES Tunis in Tunisia, the Angolan Clube Recreativo Desportivo Libolo, the UAE’s Dubai Sports Club, JS Souara in Algeria and half a season at Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca, who would become African Champions later in the same term) to little discernible success, it was an inevitable occurrence. Not in the midst of the club’s most prominent opportunity for a first title since 2001-02, however.
Desabre’s maturing tenure, it may strike the observer, unfolded in unerring calibration with that of the players that preceded his reign of the side; as if the very lingering fumigations of their heedless ambition consumed his fervour for the international stage. What Ismaily offer, an evidently healthy and productive working environment amidst all the political turmoil of Egyptian ingratiation, had little value in his overall career path, and this deduction could be made of all players who have passed through Ismailia with apparently higher aspirations. To assert such cynicism, however, can only capture events to a certain bigoted extent.
We have to accept the circumstances of much of African football; perpetually liable to corrupt government intervention, comprising some of the most hostile supporter sects seen in the global game and featuring arguably the most dramatic disparities in wealth of any continent’s organisation. Nations, given the recognition of common principles and socio-economic circumstances, are able to unify around a collective goal like in no other region, and the ability to convert raw ability and determination into profitability – although reliant largely on European capitalists to fulfil the ultimate aims of this – through football is totally unrivalled. One can elevate oneself from an uneducated, impoverished and potentially orphaned urban child to a nationally respected icon solely through the means of ability with a football. Perhaps this is the true encapsulation of the ideals of the ‘American Dream’, and the only realistic global example of its continuation, given the status of even the most socially deprived and downtrodden Americans in comparison to the constituents of Monrovia (Liberia), Bamako (Mali), Lusaka (Zambia) and Dakar (Senegal), some of the cities ranked amongst the top ten poorest in the world by U.N figures.
Thus, we may be left to only commend this ceaseless motivation, this burning desire to achieve at the zenith of conceivable environs, rather than restrain it, given the societal pitfalls and doldrums that await players retiring without titles, acclaim or fortune. While statistically one of the richest nations in Africa, Egypt should hold no deferring will, given its fiercely anti-colonisation heritage and the remaining disparities in wealth distribution. To escape the manacles of perpetual hardship, and sacrifice reputation, career stability and health for this, is highly commendable. Let us not forget two underlying factors, after all; Egyptian values very rarely align with British, or wider Western European, ideals, while the perceived ‘loyalty’ of elite figures is virtually non-existent today, with every character, and every inimitable moral, available for its price.
It could also be supposed that, considering the Egyptian people’s contemporary history of oppression – first by the British and French, later by a highly undemocratic political system of internal selection of Presidential candidates, exploited by corrupt and influential schemers, and more recently by the relatively extremist Muslim Brotherhood, and tyrannical military regime – being on the right side of the political spectrum is fundamental to social survival. There is no doubt where the safe bastions lie in the Premier Division; Al-Ahly, equipped with the 30,000-capacity Al-Salam, or more menacingly titled Cairo Military Protection, Stadium, the 93-year-old Mokhtar El-Tetch Stadium training ground and the inherent demographic facilities of a metropolis nearing megacity status (10 million+ inhabitants). Less so Zamalek, perhaps, given the stagnating Giza economy, their reliance on Cairo-based infrastructure while playing their matches at the 16,000-capacity Petro Sport Stadium – shared with fellow Premier Division side ENPPI (Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries) Sporting Club – in New Cairo and their status as league victors only once in the past 13 and a half years. Nonetheless, it would advisable, if coveted by these entities, for managers, players and club officials alike, when the employees of a club equal or below Ismaily’s status, to grant the requests of these establishment pieces in maintaining any semblance of national order.
In times like these, considerations may be made over the potential ramifications of an Ismaily domestic triumph in the political volatility of the nation. Having lost only once this season – at home to Al-Ahly – amongst 11 victories and four draws, the team have assumed a structurally resolute guise, with only eleven goals conceded as the chasm between the elite and bedraggled gapes wider. Seven victories have been achieved by a mere single-goal margin, and five of those away; demonstrating resilience to the last, even amidst the vociferous hostility of reverberating venues across the nation. They have, however, been aided by Al-Ahly’s early-season profligacy in their charge to the Premier Division’s summit; the outfit with 377 senior international caps, and 21 past or present full international players drawing on the opening day against armed forces team Tala'ea El-Gaish SC and suffering a series of domestic postponements amidst their run to the African Champions League Final. This effort, and its ultimately unsuccessful conclusion – certainly when coupled with the discord of former Spurs academy striker Souleymane Coulibaly in criticising the oppressive Egyptian regime over social media, fleeing to England and the club’s subsequent complaint to FIFA – have only exacerbated the burdens that are inherited in the maintenance and reverence of such a dominant national reputation. They are the institution the populous, so fixated on football, particularly after the commanding World Cup Qualifying campaign that has led them to their first finals appearance since 1990, look to for stability and guidance. A hastily-arranged ‘peace against terrorism’ match against Atletico Madrid last weekend – inconsequentially lost 3-2 to the Spanish outfit – only demonstrates the geopolitical undertones of their very existence. Ismaily, in contrast, have few of these obligations, and little of the same expectation. It is doubtless that they will rely on further mistakes from the under-pressure 32-time champions, and revel in this.
What may yet halt their charge, conveniently, is the application of the establishment’s furore. Whether overt, or more immersed in the minutiae of whatever reality Egyptian sport can realistically rely on, the superiority of Al-Ahly, and eternal edict of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, will prove immensely challenging to usurp. These only add to the issues that El Essawi will encounter in imparting his influence on an evidently winning formula, and moulding it into an outfit that could genuinely be proclaimed as his champions, potentially. Although the Egyptian, and wider African, managerial market is notoriously volatile – Ismaily themselves employing 19 different managers in the past decade alone – and coaches educated in this system realise the reliance on short-term accomplishment, rarely are these figures parachuted in to a side vying with the titanic national force for a historic and administratively inflammatory title.
The lack of general concern over World Cup fitness, or even selection, amongst the Ismaily squad – given no player has been capped since January to February 2017’s Africa Cup of Nations by the Egyptian national team while playing for the Suez club, and only goalkeeper Mohamed Awad and midfielder Mohamed Fathi have even been called up by Héctor Cúper since – may prove a significant advantage, however. They can concentrate almost exclusively on league proceedings from here to May, and with strikers Diego Calderón (28, and with eight league goals to date) and Moussa Camara (23, the heftier of the two, and with two goals from seven appearances) in no particular danger of Colombian or Malian call-ups in the near future, only a drastic loss of form would radically derail any title charge. With 20 players having already partaken in at least 90 minutes of league action all season, and mainstays such as Awad, left-back Bahaa Magdy and right winger Ibrahim Hassan forming a reliable nucleus alongside central-midfield pairing Hosny (club captain) and Emad Hamdi, and the centre-back partnership of Ghanaian Richard Baffour and Mahmoud Metwaly, the framework at least exists for El Essawi to continue a prosperous present. Whether he opts to retain the single striker, largely 4-5-1, system professed by his acclaimed predecessor, or revert to a more expansive outlook is entirely shrouded in speculation as of yet, but such civil duties must be settled by January 30, for the visit to the Borg El Arab; a venue only reserved for Al-Ahly for their most prestigious games of any season. Aside from his ten games in charge at the end of last season, however, this stands as El Essawi’s first experience of top-tier Egyptian domestic management; only operating at three Second Division clubs, and most recently Al-Orouba, a competitive side close to the summit of the Oman Professional League, in the past. What he lacks in experience is not insurmountable, but given the circumstances of the situation he has been handed, a pragmatic perspective has to be adopted.
It would, however, be the ultimate victory for the Egyptian underdog – ironic, given the distinctive shadow that the Sphinx casts over national culture – were El Essawi, and his band of resolute, excelling players, to address the often-derided lack of silverware for all of Ismaily’s entertainment and determination. To honour the shirt, and each of its distinctive connotations, is for now all we can expect of this contingent, and whether that is powerful enough to defy rigid national establishments, well, will be revealed in a hotly anticipated final five months. God’s speed, Ismaily. Go forth and change your nation forever.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!