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Back and forth
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 12 - 2007

Not a bad 2007 sports year for Egypt, and tough challenges ahead. Inas Mazhar reviews the past and highlights what's coming up
It was by any standard a successful 2007 for Egyptian sports. Egypt won the All-Africa Games in Algeria, tore up the record books in winning the pan-Arab Games which Egypt hosted, and squash champion Amr Shabana took the World Championship for a third time. But not all was rosy. Ahli lost the opportunity for an unprecedented three consecutive African Champions League titles in what was certainly the biggest upset of the year.
In July, Egypt topped the medal standings of the 9th All-Africa Games in Algeria with an overall total of 199 medals -- 74 gold, 62 silver and 63 bronze. Though the host country Algeria finished with more medals, Egypt had more gold medals in hand, thus the first place finish. Despite finishing second, the hosts appeared satisfied with their results. Their 203 overall medals -- 70 gold, 58 silver and 75 bronze -- surpassed Egypt as well as local expectations.
South Africa was third with 180 medals -- 61 gold, 66 silver and 53 bronze. Nigeria was fourth with 159 medals -- 50 gold, 55 silver and 54 bronze. Tunisia came in fifth with 146 medals -- 48 gold, 41 silver and 57 bronze medals.
Several national and African records were smashed during this major continental sporting event which also saw the emergence of genuine champions and hopefuls who proved their talent by boosting their respective countries' ranking in the overall standings with hard-fought medals.
Egypt entered every sports event. It won three medals in three of the four team sports it took part in; gold in handball and volleyball and a silver in basketball. The football team was eliminated in the group stage.
In weightlifting, Egypt took the lion's share of medals, winning 40 -- 23 gold, 11 silver and six bronze. Other Egyptian results included three gold, five silver and seven bronze in fencing. Wrestling claimed seven gold, four silver and five bronze and boxing two gold, one silver and two bronze. Tennis claimed three silver medals and three bronze while table tennis got one gold, three silver and three bronze.
Karate gave us four gold, six silver and five bronze. From badminton we received one bronze. The handicapped chipped in with three gold, two silver and five bronze. Taekwondu bagged six gold, two silver and three bronze medals.
The shooters racked up three gold, five silver and two bronze. Rowing won two gold, two silver and five bronze, athletics three gold and three silver and gymnastics five gold, five silver and four bronze. Chess captured eight gold, three silver and one bronze. From sailing came a lowly bronze.
In November, the winner of the $1 million prize money in the African Champions League, the Tunisian club Etoile du Sahel, was reborn in Cairo International Stadium. Sweeping Ahli 3-1 in front of a full house, the defending champion and the five-time winner of the championship was forced to bow to Etoile as the new African champion, winning as they did the trophy for the first time after three failed attempts.
It was a remarkable finale for the young men from the coastal city of Sousse who received the trophy from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Prior to this year, they had won everything in Africa -- a clean sweep of CAF titles which included winning the Cup Winners Cup and CAF Cup twice and the Super Cup and Confederation Cup once -- except the Champions League.
On the other hand, Ahli were seeking two records: a third consecutive title and sixth overall but the early second-half dismissal of defender Emad El-Nahhas turned a match the Egyptians were poised to win.
The result was Egypt's biggest sporting loss of the year.
However, it took only the nation two days to mourn Ahli's loss before the pan-Arab Games started in eight Egyptian cities. Ahli's loss was soon forgotten somewhat as Egyptian athletes made daily appearances on the podium in almost every discipline of the 28 events which were included in the Games programme.
After three weeks, Egypt was comfortably crowned the winner of the 11th pan-Arab Games. The football gold medal was Egypt's last medal in the event which increased its record haul to an overall 344 medals -- 148 gold, 102 silver and 94 bronze. Far behind, Tunisia finished in second place with an overall 147 medals -- 63 gold, 34 silver and 50 bronze medals. Algeria was third with 32 gold, 45 silver and 52 bronze medals for 129 medals. Morocco followed in fourth place with 93 medals, 22 gold, 32 silver and 39 bronze medals and Syria fifth with an overall 91 medals; 19 gold, 24 silver and 48 bronze medals. Four out of the 22 participating countries did not win a single medal.
Throughout the year, Amr Shabana was sweeping almost every championship title he competed in. In 2007, Shabana confirmed his No 1 ranking in the world by claiming 10 PSA titles.
It started in January with Shabana winning the Canadian classic. From there, he extended his winning streak month after month as titles followed with the Infor Windy City Open, the BEARS Stearns Tournament of Champions, the Sheikha Al-Saad Kuwait Open, the Qatar Classic, the British Open, the US Open, the Saudi Arabia International, the Qatar Open and the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Squash Open.
The 28-year-old successfully ended his 2007 campaign by winning the World Open title, becoming only the fourth player in history to lift the Endurance World Open Squash title for a third time.
Following an impeccable display of near faultless squash on an all-glass court at the Fairmont Southampton Resort in Bermuda, Shabana beat France's Gregory Gaultier, the world No 3, in straight games in the final of the Endurance Championship. The triumph marked Shabana's 20th PSA Tour title and, after lifting his fourth successive PSA Super Series trophy in under five weeks, it also extended his unbeaten run to 20 matches.
But 2007 had its downside: Zamalek's free fall in more than one football championship which began with the sudden, unannounced departure of their French coach Henri Michel; the confusing case of Ismaili star Hosni Abd Rabou and FIFA and whether the Austrian club Strasbourg still had the rights to the midfielder; the suspension of Zamalek's Shikabala by FIFA for leaving his Greek club Paok Saloniki; the mysterious disappearance (and possible asylum-seeking) of boxers in the US and a handball player in Paris; the ongoing dispute between National Sports Council President Hassan Sakr and Egyptian Football Association President Samir Zaher over federation elections; the ongoing power struggle between Sakr and National Olympic Committee President Mounir Sabet; the suspension of female weightlifters Nahla Ramadan and Esmat Mansour for dissent; and the trials and tribulations and subsequent drop in form ofOlympic wrestling gold medallist Karam Gaber.
Up ahead
Egypt will be looking ahead to three major events that could impact the nation's sports history.
Two of the big events will take place in the same month, in January. The national handball team will compete in the African Nations Handball Cup in Angola. The winner not only takes the trophy but the tournament's three top teams will qualify for the 2009 World Championships for Croatia.
The cup will witness tough competition among the North African countries Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, the regular rivals in the sport on the continent and who have been exchanging the title among them for the past two decades. Hosts Angola is a new threat to the sport after finishing fourth in the same championship in Tunisia two years ago.
For Egypt, winning the trophy will increase the team's self- confidence and morale and return them to the spotlight and to the world map of the sport. The team retains its position as an African powerhouse with its recent win of the gold medal at the All-Africa Games in Algeria after a thrilling and dramatic game against host Algeria, but have lost their position as one of the leading countries in world handball.
For a decade starting in 1993, Egyptian handball was ranked among the top seven in the world, including capturing the World Juniors Handball title, sixth place finishes in two world championships and two Olympic Games. Egypt's highest career record came in the World Handball Championship in France 2001 when they were placed fourth after reaching the semi-finals.
But from the 2003 edition of the World Championship in Portugal onwards and with the application of a new version in the competition system, Egypt started its slide on the international and world level and dropped out of the top seven, a position which had always given Egypt an automatic qualification to the Olympic Games without having to go through qualifications.
The second event in January, and which is of more importance to the Egyptian public, is the African Nations Cup (ANC), the biggest football tournament on the continent. Considered the third biggest football event after the World Cup and the European Championships, scouts from all over the world, especially Europe, follow the thrilling clashes with much interest in search of new talent to feed European teams. For them, Africa is a huge and in many cases untapped market for footballers.
This year, the event will kick off in Ghana starting 20 January to 10 February. Ghana, the hosts, was pitched in Group A alongside Morocco, Namibia and Guinea with defending champions, Egypt paired in Group C with Cameroon, Sudan and Zambia. Group B has Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Benin with Tunisia, Angola, Senegal and South Africa completing the pack in Group D.
Egypt seeks to defending the title it won in the last edition held in 2006 in Egypt. However, its placement in Group C has raised questions about its ability to successfully defend the crown especially after the modest results and lacklustre performances of the pharaohs in the qualifications and in friendly games.
Some take heart in what happened in the ANC in Burkina Faso in 1998. Then, nobody expected Egypt to make it beyond the first stage. The delegation had even booked their return tickets after the end of the first round. Surprisingly, Egypt went from strength to strength all the way to the final before clinching the trophy. And at each stage, the manager would wait for the result before delaying the return flight.
According to head coach Hassan Shehata, the 2008 tournament will be tougher than last year's, not only for Egypt but for everybody. Shehata said all 16 teams were good enough to challenge for the title and did not rule out an upset.
On Monday, Shehata released the names of 32 players, the notable exception being star striker Mido who is injured.
Egypt will play a friendly against Namibia on 5 January in Aswan after which Shehata will select the 23 players who will make-up the final list going to Ghana. There will be two other friendlies against Angola and Mali on 10 and 13 January.
The 2008 Olympic Games, the biggest and most prestigious sports event in the world, is another challenge Egypt is facing, but not necessarily with relish.
The Olympics will be held from 8 to 24 August in Beijing and will witness the participation of more than 200 nations. In Athens 2004, Egypt bagged five medals, including the elusive gold, the first such medal for Egypt after 56 years. The 2004 medals were the first for the country since a judo silver in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
No-one is optimistic of a repeat of the achievement in Athens especially after the retirement of all three boxers who had claimed a silver and two bronze medals, the precipitous drop in the level of performance of the taekwondu bronze medallist Tamer Salah and the ongoing disputes of the 2004 Athens gold medallist, wrestler Karam Gaber.
And with the suspension of world champion wrestler Mohamed Abdel-Fatah, or Bougi, from the International Wrestling Federation and the World Anti-Doping Agency for refusing to submit to a doping test (Egypt has taken the case to court), and the suspension of weightlifter Nahla Ramadan, who was another hope for an Olympic medal, the possibility of Egypt winning medals in Beijing remains uncertain and might even be impossible.


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