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Political Differences Force Extended Suspension of Egyptian Soccer Matches

Sharp political differences between Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC as well as opposition from various soccer clubs elsewhere in Egypt have foiled an attempt by supporters of embattled President Hosni Mubarak to persuade the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to lift its suspension of professional league matches and ban on training. The EFA was hoping to lift the suspension yesterday in a move that would have boosted Mubarak and the Egyptian military’s efforts to end ever growing mass protests seeking to end Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule that have paralyzed the country for more than two weeks by projecting a semblance of normalcy. With record numbers joining the demonstrations on Thursday and Friday in Egyptian cities in which soccer fans have played a key role and soccer players and coaches are participating, lifting the suspension would also have violated instructions from FIFA, soccer world’s body, to resume league matches suspended at the outset of the crisis only once security in Egypt had been restored. The EFA said Egypt’s four professional leagues would remain suspended until March at the least. “The hard times we are enduring prevent us from hosting any domestic or international games in Egypt. The country’s interest is what matters most now,” EFA chairman Samir Zaher said. The suspension is certain to affect the domestic league as well as international competitions. Egypt and Algeria, which has also been wracked by anti- government protests backed by Tunisia, where demonstrators last month toppled President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, are set to ask the Confederation of African Football to postpone until August matches scheduled for March. The EFA last week cancelled a friendly in Cairo against the United States that had been scheduled for February 9. FC Zamalek’s return match against Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars 4-0 will be played in Libya instead of Cairo. Zaher said he would meet with Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata, who has come out publicly in support of Mubarak to the dismay of many of his team’s players and fans, on Sunday to discuss preparations for an African Cup of Nations match against South Africa scheduled for March 25 in Cairo. EFA sources say the national team is likely to train for the match in a camp either in Egypt or outside of the country. “Resuming league action is crucial for our preparation but we will have a long training camp ahead of the South Africa game. We have yet to decide if it will be in Egypt or abroad,” said Egypt’s goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman That could further raise tension within the team with many players reluctant to leave their families in a situation of uncertainty and turmoil. Zamalek together with Shehata have been most vocal in insisting on business as usual and supported an EFA proposal to restart matches behind closed doors. Crowned Zamalek rival Al Ahly, whose most fanatical fans have been particularly active in the protests rejected the plans to exclude the public from matches. The sharp differences, reflecting deep social and political cleavages between the two clubs that go back a century, have effectively paralyzed the EFA in much the same way that Egyptians as a whole are polarized with an apparent majority unwilling to return to business as usual until they have seen the back of Mubarak – a development that could well mean that ultimately heads will also role within the EFA itself.

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