Egypt’s Rising Olympic Football Stars

Mohamed Nasr Elneny, Omar Gaber and Marwan Mohsen stand in front of a mirror in the photographer’s studio. They’re footballers, all under 23, and about to hit the big time. By the time you read this, they will be at the London 2012 Olympic Games. For the first time in 20 years, Egypt has qualified a team. Cue the publicity machine. Cue the photographer’s studio, the stylists, and the interviews-on-couches. Representatives from Vodafone, the main sponsor of the Olympic football team, are on hand to steer the players through these hoops.  They’re used to this, as Vodafone has been one of the main sponsors of the game since the telecom company launched in Egypt in 1998. They’re ready for the big-time.

Or maybe not. Maybe the big-time will flare and suddenly darken, like those studio lights flashing and blinking in sync around them. Because it’s all on the line, it’s all up in the air: “I’m after a good offer from a European club. Anything in Spain. I like Barcelona FC,” says Elneny. “I want to play in Spain or England,” says Gaber. Mohsen expresses an interest in playing in, ahem, England, or else, cough, Barcelona.

After all, the Olympic Games cut two ways. For all the soaring rhetoric about international fraternity and human nobility, it’s also a job interview. These three play for Egyptian clubs, meaning that, aside from the odd international match, they have been out of the loop, off the radar, languishing in the boondocks of international football.  Now for the Games’ three group matches, and for more if they make it to the next round, they will be playing under the noses of the European scouting agents. Playing for their lives.

Every now and then, Islam Saeed, Sports Sponsorship Senior Team Leader at Vodafone walks into the studio as the players get their photos taken. Saeed jokes with them; they are comfortable with him. He wants them to look good and relax. That is what Vodafone’s involvement is all about – bringing out the best in the players and the team. For them sports “is not just a game, it’s an investment.” And that is what CEO Hatem Dowidar is adamant about pursuing, “we are proud the first sponsorship contract in the history of Egyptian football was signed with Vodafone at the time when the brand name was still ‘Click’.”  Since then Vodafone has partnered with the National team, the Football Premier League, Al Ahly and 11 other teams from different federations, “Vodafone’s 10-year partnership with Al Ahly Club has witnessed the golden age for the Red Castle, and we are optimistic that Vodafone’s sponsorships of the National Football teams will also witness more victories for Egypt.”

The first Olympic football match for Egypt is against Brazil. Last time the two teams played, Gaber scored. If he can do that again – cha-ching – he might as well cancel the return flight. Mohsen, Gaber says, will one day be Egypt’s best striker. If the 23-year-old can prove this is so – nail a bicycle kick, a 30-yard strike, a diving header – well, he will have it made. And if the players manage to sign contracts with international clubs, that will mean better facilities, coaches and training-mates. Success is self-fulfilling.

And that’s the drama of the Games: fate riding on the spin of a ball or a chance back-heel. No wonder the three players look a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight. They hide the anxiety in different ways. Elneny, a defender-midfielder, hams it up, pretending to preen his hair. Gaber, a right back, cracks jokes about the other players. And Mohsen just looks morose: the big man, three years older than the other two, sticks out his jaw and endures the stylist’s pattering. She adds a silk scarf that makes him look like the Godfather, Don Corleone. Then she pauses. Inspects. Decides otherwise. Mohsen blinks. The scarf, the jacket, the trousers still dangle the shop-labels. The shoulder pads show the white measuring stitches. In fact, the only items that aren’t brand new and provisional are the football boots.

And the only time the three relax is when they’re given a ball. You get the feeling it has been this way for some time.

Elneny was the youngest player to ever join Al Ahly club. He was five. His father, a coach for the local Mahalla team, had already decided his son would play for the great Cairo team. One day he drove Elneny from Alexandria to play in a seven-year-olds practice game. “I played for 10 minutes,” says Elneny, “then the coach stopped the game. He came down and hugged me. He said, ‘we have to sign him now’. Management said, ‘There’s no contract. He’s too young.’” So three times a week the young Elneny made the trip to the academy’s manicured pitches in Nasr City. They signed him on his seventh birthday. He played for Al Ahly for 11 years and was made captain of the youth team. Yet soon things would change.

“My dad had always told everyone that his son plays for Al Ahly. But one day I was sold to Mokawoloun Al Arab club. I couldn’t tell him for two days. When I did, I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to make you proud, it’s going to be for the best.’”

In just one year Elneny was playing in the regular seniors’ team. Next he was picked for the junior national team, where he played in the African Cup. Then the youth World Cup. Then it was time for the Olympic qualifiers. He was still just 19 years old.

The social-political unrest of November 2011 saw the Egyptian team’s qualification games moved to Morocco, so they lost any home-ground advantage. It was a huge blow. But the team triumphed, coming third in the qualifiers and booking their place at London 2012. That night in Marrakesh, Gaber reflects, there was a lot of celebrating. What kind of celebrating? Just celebrating, he says, squirming. Singing and dancing, he allows.

Fame, says Gaber, is not a good thing. What will he do if he becomes famous? “Stay in my house.”

All the more reason, then, to become famous and buy a big old mansion house. But no, the players say, they intend to stay modest. “We are determined,” says Elneny. “We want to bring the people in Egypt good news. We want to help people feel a bit better.”

Their modesty is scrupulous, coordinated, and perhaps a little offside. Because fame, as is well known, does strange things to a man. The studio lights beep and flash. The studio darkens for a beat, then brightens. The players are still standing there, unmoved, seemingly indestructible, and it’s like a scene from a sci-fi movie; the one where they engineer soldiers in the lab. These pristine athletic specimens, welded into football boots and tuxedos. Young Olympians. The behind-the-scenes video team in the studio circles like nurses, swaddling them in publicity. The video will soon be uploaded on YouTube, and tweeted, linked, shared and liked.

‘Power to you’- is Vodafone’s slogan, Tarek Hosny, Head of Brand Department at Vodafone explains,  this slogan is about empowering Egyptians to achieve their dreams and football is just one area in which Vodafone tries to do that. “Having helped the Olympic team to get to London, it’s in the hands – well feet – of the athletes now to make us proud,” he says. “However, our journey continues with the EFA sponsorship. We will do everything we can to make sure that the dream of reaching the World Cup (Brazil 2014) is achievable through the efforts of our skilled athletes with the support of Vodafone.”

But ah, what are the dreams that lurk in the players’ hearts today?  What do they want, when they can have it all? “We want a medal,” Elneny says. “And to play for Barcelona.” And for the moment, it really is just that simple.