CAIRO: At 1 am the heat in the air is still palpable. Since dusk, the parking lot of Ain Shams University has been slowly filling; not with cars but with young boys. Their mission: football.
Proper attire is mandatory; shirts of the greats are preferred. David Beckham, Michael Ballack, and Ronaldinho have all shown up to play. In supporting roles for the evening are Frank Lampard, Mohamed Abou Treika and Ronaldo. The teams are set, goalies chosen.
No whistle blows to mark the start of the game; in fact no referees are present at all, a point that is driven home when “Lampard fakes a dive. The goal posts are cement blocks that have chipped off the curb.
Football is everywhere on the streets of Cairo. It is like a weed, sprouting up between buildings and in the most unlikely of places. An early evening taxi ride will showcase innumerable alleys and streets, all home to cadres of boys tirelessly kicking a ball around.
Like in many parts of the world, football is Egypt’s national pastime, and it captivates not only the participants, but the fans as well. Football has long been considered the sport of the masses. It needs very little equipment and with the right imagination can be played almost anywhere.
The annals of football history provide some of the most interesting rags-to-riches stories in sports. Pele and Ronaldinho grew up playing on the streets of Brazil. Egypt’s own Mahmoud Al-Khatib sneaked out of his bedroom window in order to play football on the streets of Cairo.
At the Nour Mosque, in Abbassiyeh District, games last from sunset until 3 am, or whenever anyone feels like leaving. The concrete divides of the parking lot conveniently form three makeshift pitches. The younger boys, from 11 to 14, group together in one. Boys older than 16 play together in the next lane.
The rules are simple: teams of five, first to score four goals wins, losers walk. The boys come every other day or weekly. Some have sneakers, a couple play in flip-flops at least a size too big. One even has on a worn pair of cleats.
Street football is not for the faint of heart. The boys play with all the passion of the idols on their shirts. No one has ever taught them to play, they say. They watch the matches, and learn tricks from internet videos.
“Football is like instinct, said Ayman Ibrahim, 21. “It’s in your DNA.
Whether it’s because of DNA, the Nile River water or some collective unconscious, football seems to captivate all of Cairo.
“The Egyptian people are in love with football, said Mohammed Abdul Moneim, 29, owner of a small computer hardware store in the neighborhood of Hadayeq Al-Qoba, east of Cairo.
In the street outside his store, more than 20 boys are in the middle of an afternoon match.
The pitch is concrete, flanked on both sides by three-story concrete apartment buildings. A neat row of cars lining the street makes for a challenge. The goals are practical: a garage door on one side and an apartment entryway on the other. The younger boys play in the afternoons. The older boys wait until dark, usually playing from about 1 to 4 am.
Not all the neighbors are as in love with football as Abdul Moneim. Fed up with the noise and the swearing, they douse the teams with water to make them move. It only works temporarily – the game relocates only until the street has dried.
Um Hussein has lived in the third-floor flat for 40 years. She said that the kids constantly break store and apartment doors and that the constant ruckus prevents residents from getting any rest or sleep.
“They’re always noisy, she said. “They can’t play quietly. Always swearing and insulting each other.
However, the phenomenon is not new. Her brothers, she said, grew up playing football in the same streets.
“The generations go on and on.
Inside the Shams Club, the atmosphere is in marked contrast to the street. Here the goals are lawn chairs commandeered from near the fence. The play is less rowdy with a style that utilizes the passing and movement the increased space affords. On the other side of the courtyard, the junior team hopefuls are training.
Because most youth sports in Egypt are not organized through schools, sports clubs are the official outlets for athletic activity. The competition for football is especially fierce, as younger club teams feed into the professional teams.
The best football club, Al Ahly, has 30,000 players apply each season, nearly all of them under 16. The club spends a month-and-a-half evaluating them.
The process, explained Ahmed Maher, the Head Manager of Al Ahly Juniors program, is based mainly on tests of skill and fitness. Teams are broken down by age: U9, U10, U11, U12 and U13. There are two junior teams between ages 17 to 20 and the first team, the professional team, is made up of players 21 and older, plus the very skilled.
After the fitness tests, the hopefuls are whittled down to one team per age group, which then plays a practice match against the veterans to determine if and how they will fit in with current players. The most they will admit, over all age groups, is 70 players.
The fairness of the process is hotly debated. Many working-class kids claim that the only way to even be considered by one of the clubs is to have substantial connections.
Ahmed Adel played on Al-Sekka team, but quit in order to concentrate on his Thanaweyya Amma (high school) certificate. He said that he wants to join a club, but they are “not looking for talent, he says. “You need connections.
Another dilemma of Egyptian football outlined both by Maher and local players is the conflict between school and sports. Many young boys quit playing for their club teams in order to focus on their high school certificates.
“There are some good football players in college, Maher said, “but usually you can’t be great at both. You must focus on one.
Maher said he felt that Egyptian players were not lacking in talent, but fitness. Egyptian football style, he said, is similar to that of the Brazilians and the Argentineans. The overall level of heath and fitness in Egypt is generally lower than that of Europe and other Western countries.
In some ways football has become class-conscious in Cairo: the working-class play on the street with dreams of fame and fortune, while the affluent can afford to join clubs with after-school practice sessions.
In the city of Rehab, the Al-Khatib football school is starting its evening training. Nearly all its 700 students are between the ages of six and 14. Each age group trains four days a week for an hour and 15 minutes. Like youth teams around the world, they warm up, run laps, have fitness and skills training.
At the start of training, the boys line up in groups around a small field to take attendance. There is a verbal code of conduct covering attitude and habits that must be followed. Taking attendance teaches punctuality, said Ibrahim al-Sheikh, the head of the coaches.
The football school is headed by Mahmoud Al-Khatib, Egyptian football legend and winner of the 1983 Golden Globe award for Best African Player.
Considered the best player in Egyptian football history, Al-Khatib is ranked the second-best African player in the last 50 years and is the all-time top scorer in African Club competitions with 37 goals in 49 games.
However, the focus of the school, Al-Khatib said, is not merely winning but on forming the ethics and moral characters of its athletes.
“I wanted to contribute in building up personalities that would be beneficial to society, he said. “It’s not only about establishing a football school.
The school has some impressive records in its six years of existence. Eleven of its players went on to play for the professional team of Al Ahly, and 30 others made the first teams of various other Egyptian clubs.
But always, the coaches stress the intangible benefits of the beautiful game.
“We teach the kids conduct and the respect of others, Al-Khatib said.
It is this sense of honor that can be seen in every game in Cairo, whether in the back alleys of Sayeda Zeinab or the embassy-lined streets o
By day, Robinho, Robben, and Shevchenko go to school, work and sleep off the previous night’s matches.
But as dusk falls on another day in Um Al-Dunya, Cairo, the mother of the world, the heroes of football, or at least their Egyptian impersonators, will take to the streets.