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Egyptians love soccer, but Christians are left out

Football in Egypt

As the Egyptian national soccer team progressed through the African Cup of Nations, soccer fever once again gripped the nation. However, Coptic Christians are left out of the national sport.

We reported earlier about Mina Bendary, a Coptic Christian football player, who refused to change his Coptic name for playing in professional football clubs. Later, he founded his own football academy, where Christian children are free to play football and do not have to worry about confessing their faith.

Now, when due to the African Nations Cup, football is very popular in Egypt, Aleteia shares the story of a Coptic Christian man, who talks about the difficult situation of Coptic Christians, who want to have a football carrier.

Tony Ghali left Egypt years ago. He now lives and works in Germany, from where he closely followed the progress of the Egyptian team in the African tournament. Before each game he and his daughters donned their Egypt jerseys, printed with the name of national hero and star player Mohamed Salah. Like all Egyptians, they were praying for a win, but Tony, like many other Coptic Christians, knows that no one on that team prays the way he does. “One rarely sees a Christian player in Egypt,” he tells Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

There are no official statistics on the number of Copts in Egypt, but estimates vary between 10% and 20%. The vast majority belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, with a small number belonging to the Catholic Coptic Church. The fact that no Copts, of any denomination, are represented in top-level soccer, and therefore on the national team, stings.

“I will always be excited by the national team because the players represent the country. But we’re sorry that they don’t use the full potential of the people. I am sure there is plenty of talent among the Copts,” says Tony.“It isn’t possible that among 20% of the population there isn’t anybody who can play soccer,” he adds.

This sentiment is echoed by Andrew Youssef, a Coptic lecturer and PhD candidate in theology, who is based in Canada. “Overall, I’d say the average Copt loves soccer and is happy to see the national team win, while upset there’s discrimination against Copts in that regard,” he tells ACN.

But is there actual discrimination? On the one hand, some are adamant that there is and that it is more widespread. They point to the fact that there were also no Copts on Egypt’s recent Olympic teams. Even the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, remarked in an interview with Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Saba, in 2018, that “it’s extraordinary that all of Egypt’s soccer teams don’t have a single Copt who has good legs and who kicked a ball on the streets when he was little.”

Some Muslims also agree. Former player Ahmed Hossam, known as Mido, who played for many international clubs, said in an interview with Egyptian television station DMC, in April 2018, that “regrettably, there’s a lot of people in Egypt who are bigoted over colour, religion and ethnicity. We must confront them and not bury our heads in the sand. Can you believe it that in the history of soccer in Egypt, only five Christians played at the top level?”

Among Copts, stories abound of young boys who have turned away from big clubs at trials when it was revealed that they were Christians, either by their names or, in one case, by the tattoo of a cross that many young men have on their wrists. How many were actual cases of discrimination, and how many were just interpreted that way by people who have learned to see life through a lens of persecution, is impossible to tell.

Tony Ghali tells Aid to the Church in Need that “perhaps clubs fear raising a Christian Egyptian to the status of hero.”

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