The absence of Christian players at the professional level can be traced to discrimination that begins young.
EL GOUNA — Soccer is Egypt's most popular sport. The Egyptian national team is the most successful in African Cup history. A café filled with people of all ages watching a game is a familiar sight across the country. The famous Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany wrote that "Egyptians are attached to soccer the way the French are to wine." While Egyptians may be united in their fandom, Christians in the country are lamenting the fact that only Muslims get to play.
Some people assume from soccer player Remon Zakhry's name that he is either a foreigner or an Egyptian using Remon as a moniker. However, when they realize that he is Coptic Christian, there is a shift in the way they deal with him.
After years of playing with a local team, Zakhry, 25, thought he'd struck gold when he was offered to join al-Gouna club. "I was sitting in a meeting with the club coach, Ismail Youssef, to sign my contract," Zakhry recounts. "I showed my ID to complete the contract and Youssef saw my name. He was surprised to learn that Remon was my real name and not a nickname. He gave me back my ID and left the room."
"The contractor attending the meeting told me later that Youssef doesn't like to work with Christians," he adds. Youssef, a famous former Zamalek Club player, denied discriminating against Zakhry in comments to news website Masrawy, saying that more often than not, players use religious discrimination as justification for their poor talent. But Zakhry believes that in that case, he wouldn't have been sitting with Youssef to sign the contract in the first place.
Egypt's national soccer team in 1990 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A player whose name is indicative of his Christian identity is not common. But soccer fans all know that the famous former player for Al-Ahly Club and Egypt's national team, Hany Ramzy, was a Copt. Ramzy was the only Christian to play on Egypt's national team in the 1990s. He even served as the coach of Egypt's Olympic soccer team in 2012.
When claims are made that Egypt's Christians are discriminated against in soccer, Ramzy is often invoked. He played for several teams in Europe, and some commentators believe it was the success and prestige he earned in Europe that enabled him to get so far in Egypt. The blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer describes him as the "exception that proves the rule."
Christians do not play soccer in Egypt. This is the first thing I would hear.
There have been no other Christian players in the national team and only a handful in Egypt's local teams. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these included: Nasser Farouk, former goalkeeper for Ghazl al-Mahalla; Emad Shawqy, former goalkeeper for Talae'al-Geesh; and 1980s Ismaili Club player Mohsen Abdel Messieh.
Christians claim that Coptic players, however talented, have little to no chance of success in soccer due to discrimination and exclusion. In his 2010 book Copts and Sports: A Goal in the Playground of Extremism, sports journalist at Watani newspaper Nour Qaldas argued that soccer has turned into a field where religion plays a crucial role.
In his book, Qaldas traces the discrimination Copts face in soccer to early stages — when young players apply to join clubs in the under-18 championship. As a consequence, it gets harder for well-trained Coptic talent to bloom further.
"Christians do not play soccer in Egypt. This is the first thing I would hear when I'd apply to play soccer in clubs," says Zakhry, currently playing for the local Assiut-based Abu Tieg Club. Zakhry says he had a rare bit of luck in a career marred by discrimination when he started playing at the local Petrol Assiut Club in southern Egypt.
But two years ago, when Zakhry applied to join a team to represent Upper Egypt in a local tournament, the team's coach was not ashamed to openly discriminate against him due to his religion, he recounts. On finding out that he was Christian, the coach, who was in charge of choosing 22 players from the camp to join the local tournament, said to him, "Why do you play soccer? You Christians have no connection to soccer."
After this, Zakhry did not expect to make it. "But it seems I was too good not to be chosen. When he announced the final choices, he listed the names of 21 of the players, but could not bring himself to say my name out loud."
Zakhry's troubles with the coach did not end there. During the tournament, Zakhry says, the coach would try to convert him to Islam, as well as make disparaging comments about his faith. "He told me he never liked Christians and that he had to change apartments three times because he had Christian neighbors."
After playing for some time with Petrol Assiut, Zakhry thought he would finally get his chance to play in the Egyptian Premier League when it looked like he would get signed by Gouna club. A private club owned by Egyptian tycoon Samih Sawiris, himself a Coptic businessman, Gouna often plays in the Egyptian Premier League. "Joining Gouna would have made a huge difference in my career," he laments.
Zakhry went back to playing with Petrol Assiut and later joined Abu Tieg Club, where he currently plays. He says he has not faced discrimination in either of these clubs.
Never getting the call
Discrimination faced by talented Coptic soccer players is often not explicit. At an admissions test at Ghazl al-Mahalla club, coaches told Mina Halim* that they would call him back, but never did. "I applied as a goalkeeper. During the test, I managed to prevent 14 out of 15 strikes, and the coaching crew was impressed by my performance," Halim recounts.
His only problem was that his name was Mina, a Christian name, he says. "I didn't even get to finish saying my name, they interrupted me and said they would call me later, and they didn't."
Losing hope at making any progress towards his dream of being a goalkeeper in Egypt, Halim moved to the UAE where he now works as a coach for a local team. "My real chance should have been there in Egypt, my country," he says. "Being Christian should not be something you are punished for."
The absence of Copts in Egyptian soccer appears to have been tacitly taken for granted for a long time, but in recent years, a number of cases have come to the public's attention.
Al-Ahly Club, one of Egypt's biggest sports clubs, was accused of discriminating against Copts wishing to join the under-18 team twice in 2016.
Tony Atef, 12, performed very well on the club's tests, and the coach asked him to register on the team. But once the administrator saw the cross on his right hand, he refused to register him, according to Atef's older brother, Bishoy. After the story went viral in May, Tony was re-enrolled in the admission tests. Head of the club's under-18 department, Adel Teama, apologized to Atef, saying that the incident was an "unintended mistake."
In the wake of the Rio Olympics in 2016, the U.S.-based organization Coptic Solidarity submitted a complaint to the International Olympic Committee and FIFA claiming that Egypt routinely discriminates against Coptic athletes.
The organization pointed out that of 122 Egyptian athletes competing in the Rio Olympics, not one was a Copt, adding that Egypt's 2012 London delegation similarly did not include any Copts. Coptic Solidarity argued that the absence of Coptic athletes from the Olympic teams as well as semi-professional and professional clubs in Egypt was the "product of deep-rooted discrimination that exists in the administration of athletics and soccer in Egypt, and in Egyptian society at large."
The organization said it was in communication with at least 10 athletes willing to testify against the religious discrimination they encountered in Egypt's world of sports, and called on the Olympic Committee and FIFA to send investigative committees to Egypt to examine the matter.
In his book, Qaldas pointed to remarks made by Hassan Shehata while he was serving as national coach about how he chooses players.
Shehata, who led Egypt to three successive victories at the African Cup of Nations Championships in 2006, 2008, and 2010, said that a player's good conduct and relationship with God are important factors in choosing who can represent Egypt internationally.
I select the players from clubs, not from the streets.
"Without this, we will not include any player regardless of his abilities. I always work on ensuring players who wear Egypt's jersey have a good relationship with God," he explained, referring to the team's former player Mohamed Zidan.
"Zidan did not use to pray, and I did not like him being away from us during prayers," said Shehata. "I met with him before our game against Brazil and convinced him of the importance of prayer, and he has been committed to praying since then."
Shehata was heavily criticized for his comments, which he later retracted in a long BBC interview.
Asked about the absence of Copts within the ranks of the national team, Shehata denied the existence of discrimination in Egyptian soccer, arguing that there is "no single Coptic player currently, either in the first or second league clubs, who is qualified enough to join the national team," adding that, "I select the players from clubs, not from the streets."
Responding to a question about why youth coaches do not go to where the Coptic players are, Shehata said that if he came across a Coptic player of a sufficient standard in the national clubs, he would work with him, but that he would not go to Coptic sport centers.
While Shehata does not look for talent in Coptic sport centers, this is where most Coptic players are. Faced with exclusion, talented Coptic youth who do not want to give up playing find their haven within the church.
The church organizes a soccer league each year, with teams split into under- and over-18s from each governorate. The winning team gets to meet the Patriarch of Alexandria, leader of the Coptic Church, in a ceremony. While such activities enable Coptic soccer players to practice, those who want a professional career in the game bemoan the lack of exposure.
"This league rarely attracts media attention," says Andrew Rafaat, who plays in the league as well as coaches under-18s. "Currently, you might find one or two newspapers covering the finals when the Patriarch awards the prize to the winning team, but that's it. It is way too far from the exposure any soccer player needs to build a good career."
*Not his real name.