Football was introduced to Egypt by the British in 1882 and started out as a pursuit for wealthy Egyptians and those in the colonial administration. The first clubs were established in the early 20th century, with al-Sekka al-Hadid (Railway Club) being the first club founded in the Arab World by British and Italian Railway Authority engineers in 1903. Railway Club was soon followed by Cairo-based clubs al-Ahly (“National”), al-Mokhtalat (“Mixed”, a precursor to Zamalek), and al-Tersana (“Arsenal”). A couple of major clubs were formed in Alexandria as well, including al-Ittihad and al-Olympi.
The Egyptian Football Association gained recognition from FIFA in 1923, making it the first African FA to be recognized by the international body. It did not take long for Egypt to make their mark in international football, with a semi-final showing in the 1928 Olympics. As in many African countries, football had major political significance. Before the deposition of King Farouk in 1952, football stadiums served as one of the few locations where ideas and resistance to colonial rule were discussed freely. After Farouk’s deposition, Egyptian football served as a symbol of the nation and its people, as well as a promoter of Pan-Arabism when Gamel Abdel Nasser took power. Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak also saw football as an opportunity to gain popular support, and success in football was vital for promoting political agendas.
The political scene in Egypt and its ties to football have had a permanent impact on the fanbases of clubs and rivalries, none more so than Egypt’s biggest football rivalry, Al Ahly and Zamalek. Ahly (“National”) was formed as a club to promote Egyptian nationalism, being the first Egyptian club to allow Egyptians as members. Meanwhile, Zamalek (known as al-Mokhtalat, or “mixed”) was founded by a Belgian lawyer in Cairo and distinguished itself by allowing membership to Europeans and Egyptians. The beginning of this rivalry in the 1920’s established Al Ahly as a “club of the people” while Zamalek was perceived as the club for the wealthy and foreigners. Once Egypt’s leaders started to embrace Ahly and became public fans of the club, however, Zamalek supporters have argued that now their club is the anti-establishment club by resisting the corruption of the Egyptian government and EFA.
The passion and political background in Egyptian football has turned violent, with no incident more infamous than the 2012 Port Said disaster. In the tense aftermath of president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, a match between Ahly and Port Said-based club Al Masry ended with mass violence in the stadium, resulting in 74 deaths, 72 of which were Ahly fans. Ahly fans maintain, with the support of witness accounts, that the violence occurred because of their political activism and resistance to the regime. The rest of the 2011-12 Egyptian Premier League was canceled due to the tragedy, and domestic football did not return for another year after.
Once the league came back, Egyptian football suffered briefly, but the league is back in full force as one of Africa’s best. The national team has returned to prominence thanks to a generation of superb players such as Mohamed Salah and Mahmoud Trezeguet. Egypt was able to return to the international stage in the 2018 World Cup, their first since 1990. Despite disappointing showings in 2018 and the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations they hosted, the Egyptian national team are regular contenders and favorites in African football.