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What Was Life in Egypt Like Last Time We Qualified For The World Cup?

Senior Editor Ahmed Shiha unearths 3-decade-old newspapers to examine how life in Egypt has dramatically changed since the early 1990s.

Staff Writer

What Was Life in Egypt Like Last Time We Qualified For The World Cup?

Our run in this year’s World Cup is over, and though we didn’t exactly have the smoothest of experiences over in Russia, getting there is by no means no small feat. I mean the last time we went was 28 whole years ago; 1990 isn’t exactly yesterday. One wonders though, after all these years and events, how life was way back when we qualified for the last World Cup. Not just when it comes to football either; politics, society, lifestyle, all of that jazz.

What did they listen to or eat? What did they watch? What was fashion like? What was life like? Though our last foray into the World Cup – and even just the occurrence itself – may have spread an air of cheer back then, you can’t tell what your average Egyptians’ life was like back in the 90’s. Unless you take a trip to the Egyptian National Archives of course, you can dig up whatever about whenever there, and that was exactly what I had in mind. I knew I’d find the answers I needed in old editions of Al Ahram, so after I did the necessary logistics to get into the archives, I grabbed June of 1990’s copies, as well as those from November of 1989. June is always when the World Cup happens, and November was the time we actually qualified back then. I was handed a giant archive of each month’s editions; a tonne of paper almost. There’s something about the smell of old newspapers; dust aside, it’s what I can refer to as the scent of nostalgia.  My journey to 1990 begins with a flip of the page.

28th of January, 2001

Egypt goes up against Morocco for a friendly little game of kick the ball. I’m watching it all transpire in my grandmother’s house, on her old 14 inch Samsung (full colour too). It always eluded me how they could afford to have one of those massive double-rack boom boxes, but could never bother to go for more than 14 inches of TV. Anguish aside, the last time we won over Morocco was back in 1986, but for us to actually reach the World Cup back then, we had to beat Morocco. Hossam Hassan might have hopped over to Zamalek, but it wouldn’t register as anything if he managed to nab us the match. Emara’s left leg is doing what it does best, and fortune doesn’t seem to be on neither Hossam nor Medo’s sides. The second half comes on, and Tarek Saeed has to be the one to fumble the defence as per usual. I couldn’t forgive him till we beat Morocco in 2017. Ultimately, the 2001 match was a draw, but there’s still some hope left in me; even if it meant dealing with the devil for us to win Morocco and Algeria.

Summer, 2001

Amro El-Leithy’s little old TV show ‘Ekhteraq’ airs an episode titled “Egypt’s World Cup Setback.” Basically a documentation of the events leading up to the team’s loss, and the kind of hot water the national team fell into such as death threats and even assault in Algeria. The opposing team seemed to have done nothing but wrong to ours, leading to Egypt’s submission of a full record documenting everything to FIFA. Perchance they might redo the game. Pissing in the wind mostly. My mother put it better than I could; “We’ve only been in the thing two times ever since God decided to bring the World Cup into existence in 1930. What kind of “setback” are they talking about?”

18th of November, 2009

It’s as if fate decided that our path to the World Cup back then was to be smooth. Everything we’d dreamed of came true, and what remained, merely in sight. My old Nokia phone had a little music album on it entirely comprised of Algeria diss tracks before the match. Seeing as we were playing in Sudan, the audience was naturally on our side. Abo Treika might have been injured, but he was ready to go, and so was Met3eb. Egypt’s streets are virtually empty minutes before the match began – the best opportunity to brave 6 October bridge. I remember leaving the ahwa at 10:30, barely aware of what had just happened. All I know is I did my best to try and forget it, as well as the sight of all those people with me – heads so slumped down you’d think it was a funeral.

The EFA submits a complaint to FIFA in light of all the armed hostilities directed at the Egyptian team, as well as the audience, from before the match to the bitter end. Alaa Mubarak reaffirms that anybody throwing insults or stirring up conflict against Egyptians would be beaten with a shoe. Not the most disappointing thing in Egypt’s history. Still, folks back in the 90s had it good.

Ihab Tawfik Keeps Ras el Barr Lit

Let’s go back to the World Cup back in Italy; a memory best accompanies by spot-on background music. Tamer Abdel-Hamid – a man in his 30s’ – about how it was like back when he was a kid: “Back in 1990, Mohamed Mounir had just dropped his ‘Ya Iskendereya’ album, and that thing deservedly spread like wildfire, especially the track ‘El Maryala El Kohly’. 1990 also saw the birth of a new star; Ihab Tawfik – who had just dropped his first album, ‘Ekmenny’. It was all the rage in Gamasa, and the talk of the town at Ras el Barr. Mounir, however, he was still high up in the clouds thanks to scores of devoted Alexandrian fans. So much so that you could hear the titular album all over town.  Though Ekmenny may have been virtually the first time crowds got to taste Tawfik, he would go on to produce 18 more. That one, however, it’ll always be linked to Egypt’s rise to taking part in the World Cup.

17th of November, 1989 – The Rayyan Trials Begin

As is natural, you can’t get to June of 1990 without swinging by November of 1989 – specifically, the 17th of November. One match stands in the way of every Egyptian who wants to see their team get to Italy, The away game ended in a draw, and for us to go toe to toe with Algeria, we’d have to go through a few qualifying matches fairly easily. Liberia, Malawi and Kenia were fair exceptions. The match is to be in the Cairo Stadium, seeing it fill up with two million people would be something. The day of the match, the first page of the paper screamed “Rayyan trial underway, f0 family members’ funds frozen, Prime Minister holds meeting to evaluate the situation.” The most famous criminal trial in the 1980’s, and what would lead to Ahmed El Rayyan’s 21-year prison sentence.

“Egypt and Algeria.. On the 22 to Italy.” The front page ringer on the sports magazines of the time, and an opportunity for anybody in the team; a weeklong trip to wherever they wanted to go in the world.

  • Mama, what do you remember about our turn in the 90’ World Cup?


  • It was a better time, without today’s noises and nuisances. Our first time at the World Cup left people hungry, nearly addicted. They needed to go one more time. Your typical Egyptian football player had a nasty habit of grabbing the referee’s arm before raising a card, and that kind of stuff wouldn’t fly at all in the World Cup.


  • That must have been funny at the time, but Ibrahim Hassan did it anyway at the World Cup -only because he wanted to stop the referee before we could score against Ireland.


  • He always had a screw loose.


  • Who was the MVP back then?


  • There wasn’t a name the crowd wanted to cheer after Khatib Al-Gawhary was the star of the that particular team, and he was the driving force behind Egypt’s national team, he gave it an edge over both Ahly and Zamalek.


  • What about day-to-day life?


  • I’d just married your father, and he used to get 30-something pounds a month, enough to eat and drink. Clothes and disease were a luxury.


June, 1990.. Price Hikes are a boon to Economic Reform and Securing the Future

Mohamed Mubarak throws out statements at a press conference on the first of June, 1990. Channel Two airs the Cannes Film Festical, followed by Hany Shaker’s ‘The Stars and the World Cup’. Cinemas are playing ‘Hanafy El-Obbaha’, ‘Al Raqesa W Al Seyasy’ and ‘Amaleqa Khareqoon’, Casinos, however, saw a lot of star-studded action; Sherifa Fadel and Mohamed Kandil at Casino El-Leil, Aly Hemeda and Nashwa at Casino Al-Mawwed, and Hassan Al Asmar and Emad Abdel-Halim at Casino Paradis.

The sports page publishes a bit of news about the EFA cancelling the audience trip to Italy. It was about these forms that folks could buy for five pounds, and whoever had them automatically went into a draw for tickets to Italy. Reception to the idea, however, wasn’t particularly strong. On the last page of the paper, an ad for ancient “Sakhr” computer stands out – Egypt’s first personal computer. Priced at a hefty EGP 598 – a discount from 639 thanks to the World Cup.

Are You Pro-Gawhary or, God Forbid, Against?

Sherif Shafy, one of the few Egyptians out there you could call a “Football Historian,” was an interesting source of info. “Before the World Cup started, Gawhary was getting a lot of criticism ever since the playoffs, all because poor performance, poorer scores in friendly matches and of course, his questionable choice of players. The fact that he saw the league as nothing but a waste of time didn’t help, neither did cancelling it in favour of more friendly matches with different teams to try and take the edge off our team and those of the Europeans.” Sherif was only 24 at the time of the championship.

The national team plays a few friendly matches with Tunisia, Scotland, Colombia and East Germany. Lots of new talents and newer faces thrust upon us, but that doesn’t give Gawhary’s decisions much merit. Tamer Abdelhamid is an old-school football aficionado, and he had his own two cents to share: “Gawhary took on a bunch of useless players and took out much more fital players like Badr Ragab, and that’s all besides his scuffle with Taher Abo-Zeid. Truth is both of them had too much of an ego, and their clash with each other was necessary, but the General had to be the winner.” On the 2nd of June, 1990, Gawhary filed a complaint against Al Ahram’s editor because of people calling him ”The Dictator” and “The Emperor.”

Trouble in Palestine and the Naglaa Fathy Incident.

A few days before the World Cup, ‘Boogy W Tamtam’ and ‘Abadan Lam Akon Ana’ grace the airwaves on TV, and later on in the night, Cinema Club and Cleopatra keep folks up. In the world of politics, Palestine suffers two casualties and 39 injuries from colonist gunfire, and article titled “It’s Time Israel Left Arab Land” took centre stage. An investigative piece by Ahram journalist Saed Aly about potentially alleviating political and humanitarian projects for the crisis. Stuff like free zones, linking the Nile to the new delta and a new High Dam, all that jazz.

Adel Emam’s Hanay Al Obaha’ naturally rakes in the big b ucks, and in second places lies ‘Al Raqesa Wal Seyasy’. Naglaa Fathy prepares to go back to cinema with ‘Da3oony A3eesh’. Perhaps the name changed, but Al Ahram took a bit of an interest in that piece of news; seeing as it was Naglaa’s first performance after her incident with Ahmed Zaki. You see, in 1990, there were rumours circulating about Naglaa’s marriage to Zaki, despite the two denying the whole thing. That relationship ended with a few bumps and bruises after a car accident on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.  Naglaa said that she and her friend Zaki were travelling and discussing a new film in the making, produced by Zaki himself.

Mahfouz Nabs a Nobel, Italy Wants World Cup Money

“Has Naguib Mahfouz earned the Nobel Prize, or has the Nobel Prize earned Naguib Mahfouz?” That was the question the New York Times asked in its June 5 edition of 1990. Egypt’s TV delegation to Italy was going through the motions of getting its place among the world’s top broadcasts, all ready to report the match. The Egyptians were in for a surprise, however, especially commentator Mahmoud Bakr; the Italians hadn’t written their name down, on account of Egypt’s being late to pay for the broadcast rights. At the same time, the Italian Consulate wasn’t keen on giving out Italian visas to Egyptians, perhaps because of the 90,000 or so Egyptians running around Italy without work permits. That’s just a few too many.

8th of June, 1990.. A Kilo of Meat is Four Pounds

It’s the opening day for the World Cup, Gawhary and his team arrive a few days ago to train at Palermo. The entirety of Egypt is counting down the hours. Eid is on its way, while money isn’t. 500 tonnes of meat are being sold at four whole pounds (at the time) for a kilo, rice for 80 piasters, and sugar for a pound. A gram of gold would set you back three pounds, how are you supposed to get married? Healthcare wasn’t affordable, but Al Ahram managed to gather EGP 442,000 and 82,000 dollars to build a cancer therapy centre in Mansoura, and a kidney failure centre in Sharqeya.

What are we to do against Holland and England? We were dead men walking. Computers predicted that Egypt was to lose 8 – 1 against Holland, and 4 – 1 against England. Gawhary wasn’t having that though, and he was confident in his players. Hossam is ready to go, and they say that Taher might be playing, but Gawhary has bad blood with him.  It’s only a day away from the match, Hesham wasn’t ready for Van Basten, God help us all.

12th of June, 1990.. To Infinity and Beyond

“Our father wasn’t really into football, but he’d watch with us when he found us getting into it. He’d always have something to say about the penalties.” “I still remember the front page in the paper after the match, when Hesham Yaken saying: Van Basten who? I’m way better than you.” “The kids after the match lit a bunch of steel wool in celebration; Holland was quite the interesting day.” “We could have won had it not been for Gamal Abdel Hamid fumbling three goals all on his own.” These were all comments from folks who clearly remember the 12th of June, 1990.

All the people I asked about their experiences back then would say stuff like: People were more polite – we were poor but happy – Those days should come back. I haven’t the faintest idea what I’ll say about 2018 in 30 years from now, and about the Russia World Cup. I don’t know if I’ll wish those days would come back, or if I’ll thank god they’re over. Where will we be? What will we do? Will we go to another World Cup? How many times? Or will all our efforts to get there end up with history repeating itself? All I know is that I’ve seen Egypt play this year’s World Cup, and I’ll have a thing or two to tell in the future.

Original article on Elfasla

Written by Ahmed Shiha

Translated by Ahmed ikram