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Calls for exiled player to go to WCup stirs storm in Egypt

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CAIRO (AP) Soon after Egypt qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, a hashtag began trending on social media: “Aboutrika to the World Cup.”

In a country where soccer and politics often mix, and often with explosive results, the pro-government media didn’t like that.

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The hashtag unleashed an intense online campaign by tens of thousands of fans calling for former star midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who is now living in exile in Qatar, to come out of retirement and play for Egypt at the World Cup in Russia next year.

It stirred a storm in the Arab country because of Aboutrika’s alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has been outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government. The Brotherhood was outlawed after the military’s ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

The 38-year-old Aboutrika faces a host of charges rooted in his alleged financial support for the Brotherhood and lives in exile knowing he risks arrest if he returns home. His assets have been frozen by Egyptian authorities and his name is on a terrorism list. He now makes a living as a soccer pundit on the Qatar-based sports channel beIN.

Aboutrika turned down the call to return in a message to his supporters.

“These are kind feelings for which I thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But realism is better and I don’t steal the efforts of others. Those men (on the current team) deserve to be there alone.”

Yet that gentle refusal didn’t stop the storm around him, and the unfavorable comparisons made by some between Aboutrika and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, the team’s current star and new darling of the pro-government media.

“Mohammed Salah is the player who stood by his country, not like the other one (Aboutrika),” said Ahmed Moussa, perhaps the most ardent government supporter among TV talk show hosts. “He (Salah) is Egypt’s only star.”

The 25-year-old Salah endeared himself to fans with both goals, including an injury-time penalty, in a 2-1 win over Republic of Congo on Oct. 8 that ensured Egypt qualified for the World Cup for just the third time, and first time in nearly 30 years.

Salah has also been embraced by the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and its supporters in the media as a patriot. A donation of 5 million Egyptian pounds (nearly $300,000) Salah made in December to a development fund founded by el-Sissi has gone a long way to endear him to them.

In the week since qualification, Salah has been branded “golden boy,” “legend” and “genius.”

One media commentator, Dandarawy el-Hawary of the daily “Seventh Day,” wrote of Salah’s decisive goal against Republic of Congo: “It touched off the volcanoes of patriotism, sense of belonging and love of one’s country.”

Not long ago Aboutrika was the national hero – he still is to many – after playing a central role in Egypt’s three straight African Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Those triumphs made Egypt Africa’s most successful team with a record seven titles.

Now, the pro-government media refers to him as a traitor.

Another talk show host, Amr Adeeb, suggested the campaign to bring Aboutrika out of retirement was the work of government critics and berated him for his failure to lead Egypt to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Aboutrika has been labeled a mercenary, with his job with the Qatar-based beIN used as evidence of his lack of patriotism because of Egypt’s diplomatic spat with Qatar over the tiny Gulf nation’s alleged support of terrorism.

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Aboutrika’s supporters argue that to have him back on the team would be a just reward for his dedication to Egypt and compensation for his failed efforts to get the team to previous World Cups. They point out that Argentina great Diego Maradona and Cameroon’s Roger Milla both came out of retirement to play for their countries at the World Cup.

Responding to the criticism from government supporters, Aboutrika’s fans have also been posting videos of him scoring goals for club and country in years past, with commentators lavishly praising him for his skill and passion.

Salah’s late PK sends Egypt to World Cup, joyous celebrations

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For the first time since 1990, the Egyptians are headed to the World Cup.

[ UEFA: Lewandowski leads Poland to WC; England finish with another win ]

Courtesy of a Mohamed Salah brace, including the Liverpool winger’s 94th-minute game-winning penalty kick to secure victory over Congo on Sunday, Egypt’s World Cup drought ends after 27 long years and six straight tournaments missed.

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The second Salah’s spot kick hit the back of the net, the crowd of 30,000 filling a military stadium in Alexandria, as well as one very emotional fan, celebrated in disbelief and gave thanks where necessary.

Egyptian coach suspended as row over Qatar reaches soccer

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The diplomatic row over Qatar has reached soccer.

An Egyptian coach was suspended on Thursday for refusing to give interviews to a Qatar-based television network and attempting to boycott a news conference where the network’s journalists were present. After finally giving in and agreeing to attend the news conference, the coach covered the station’s microphone with his hand to try and block the recording, the Confederation of African Football said when announcing his punishment.

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Hossam el-Badry, coach of Egyptian club Al Ahly and a former Egypt international, was fined $10,000 by CAF and suspended for one game for the snubs aimed at the Qatar-based beIN Sports network following two games in the African Champions League.

Egypt was one of four countries alongside Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to sever ties with Qatar last month, accusing it of supporting extremist groups and funding terrorism.

Qatar, which will host soccer’s World Cup in 2022, denies the allegations.

The beIN sports channels are owned by Al Jazeera, Qatar’s flagship television network and a factor in the diplomatic standoff. The four anti-Qatar countries want, among other things, Al Jazeera to be shut down.

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The African soccer body said el-Badry initially refused to attend a news conference following Al Ahly’s 2-0 loss to Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca on June 20 because of the presence of beIN sports journalists. He did eventually attend, but either put his hand over the beIN microphone while he spoke or pushed the microphone away, CAF said.

Following a game in Egypt last weekend against Cameroon’s Coton Sport, el-Badry and Al Ahly players refused all interviews with beIN. The players also boycotted the news conference.

El-Badry’s one-game ban was put on hold, provided he was not found guilty of a similar offense during the remainder of the African Champions League, CAF said. Al Ahly has qualified for the quarterfinals.

Egypt high court upholds death sentences of 10 soccer rioters

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CAIRO (AP) Egypt’s highest appeals court on Monday upheld the death sentences against 10 people convicted over a soccer riot that killed over 70 fans in 2012, becoming one of the world’s deadliest soccer disasters.

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The verdict by the Court of Cassation is final. The defendants were charged with murder, along with other charges. The court also upheld convictions of 22 suspects who received up to 10 years imprisonment over the rioting. A total of 11 defendants were sentenced to death but one remains at large and was tried in absentia.

The rioting erupted on February 2012, at the end of a league match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said between Cairo’s Al-Ahly, Egypt’s most successful club, and home side Al-Masry.

In a socking and unexpected turn, Al-Masry fans rushed to attack Al-Ahly supporters with knives, clubs and rocks. Witnesses and survivors described victims falling from the bleachers as they tried to escape. Hundreds of others fled into an exit passage, only to be crushed against a locked gate with their rivals attacking from behind.

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The riot led to the suspension of Egypt’s top soccer league for over a year. The league later resumed, but with matches played in empty stadiums.

The first Egyptian Premier League game in which fans were allowed back into the stadiums was played in February 2015, but that occasion was also marred by the death of 22 fans in a stampede outside the grounds. The stampede followed the use of tear gas by police to stop what authorities at the time said was an attempt by fans to storm the military-owned stadium in a suburb east of Cairo.

In the Port Said disaster, most of the victims belonged to Al-Ahly’s “Ultras Ahlawy,” an association of hard-core fans now banned by authorities. In 2015, an Egyptian court ruled that the “Ultras” were a terrorist organization.

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Members of the “Ultras” have long been at odds with the nation’s highly militarized police, taunting them with offensive slogans during matches and fighting them in street battles. Hard-core fans of other clubs also identify themselves by going under variations of the Ultras’ name. During the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, the Ultras often provided muscle at street rallies, directing protesters, leading chants and standing first in the line of fire as riot police unleashed tear gas.

Earlier this month, Egyptian police detained more than 100 Al-Ahly fans over a period of two days on suspicion they had planned to stage a protest on the anniversary of the Port Said rioting. The Ultras subsequently cancelled a planned commemoration. Five of those detained were charged with inciting protests and belonging to an outlawed group.

Public gatherings without a permit are banned under Egypt’s draconian anti-terrorism laws.

Strong second half hands Cameroon fifth AFCON title

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It looked like the two sides were headed for extra time but Vincent Aboubakar decided to change the script with just two minutes remaining.

Cameroon captured its fifth African Cup of Nations crown on Sunday after Aboubakar netted the game-winner in the team’s 2-1 victory over Egypt at Stade de l’Amitié.

The second-half substitute did brilliantly to control a long ball into his path, before juggling the ball over a defender and blasting it into the back of the net in the 88th minute.

The Egyptians took the lead after 22 minutes when Mohamed Elneny was slipped into the penalty area by Mohamed Salah. Elneny received the ball on the right side of the box before blasting his shot towards the top corner and past goalkeeper Joseph Ondoa.

Cameroon responded on the other side of halftime through substitute Nicolas N’Koulou, who leveled the match at 1-1 just before the hour mark. N’Koulou came on in the 31st minute to replace Adolphe Teikeu.