CAIRO: Most football players and fans attach little importance to who their team’s captain is. What concerns them most are results.
So, it is odd that talk about who should skipper Egypt’s national football team has turned into an all-out row.
Rookie head coach, Hossam El-Badry, reportedly wants superstar Mohamed Salah to wear the armband even though the oldest player is right back Ahmed Fathy, who reportedly has refused to hand over the captaincy.
Fathy was named Egypt’s captain by El-Badry for their friendly against Botswana earlier this month, however, Salah, who was rested, will supposedly reclaim the captaincy when he returns to the squad.
“I want to give the badge to a player who can lead the team — not only for the older player in the squad,” El-Badry was quoted as saying. “I’ll ask players for their opinions about who deserves to be the captain because we need a star.”
If a star is what is required, Fathy certainly fits the description. He has made 131 appearances for his country since 2002 and plays for Al-Ahly, one of Egypt’s top clubs. He has also had stints with English sides Sheffield United and Hull City.
Of course, Liverpool’s Salah is no stranger to stardom. One of the world’s best players, he is a two-time top scorer in the English Premier League and wears a Champions League ring. He has 41 international goals in 67 appearances, the best record among his teammates.
El-Badry appears to be implying that Egypt’s captain need not be the oldest player on the team. That flies in the face of tradition in the Arab world where the captain is automatically the most senior player, not necessarily a star or the squad’s best performer.
El-Badry might cite the case of Dutch defender Matthijs de Ligt who became the youngest captain in a European Champions League knockout game when he wore Ajax’s skipper armband at 19 in a game against Real Madrid in February this year.
It would appear that El-Badry favors having his best player, not his oldest, as the team’s captain.
Young or old, good or great, and regardless of whether they boast leadership qualities, it is not usually of concern among Egyptian and other Arab teams who is captain. They are given the routine tasks of leading their team out of the dressing room at the start of a match, participating in the coin toss prior to the kickoff to choose which half of the field to play in, and are the first player to hoist the trophy won by the team.
They break up squabbles between sides, act as their team’s representative when debating against a call, and sometimes referees talk to the captain about settling rowdy teammates.
The more experienced captains rally their team if morale is low. They are the on-pitch leaders and are looked upon to boost team spirits. They also act as a calming influence over younger players. They often have good leadership qualities and can even influence a game.
Unlike in some European countries, Arab captains never join the manager in deciding the starting 11 for matches. That decision lies solely with the coach. In that respect, football captains in this part of the world are largely symbolic.
As such, it would appear that El-Badry is attaching too much importance to the issue and should focus more on guiding a team which has been going south.
Egypt did poorly in last year’s World Cup in Russia, failing to win a single point and finishing 31 out of 32 teams. In this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations, hosted by Egypt, the national side again fell short, stopped dead in its tracks in the relatively early round of 16.
Instead of paying so much attention to who should be captain, El-Badry should be more concerned about how to get the team back to winning ways. There is no point in worrying about who is the captain of a sinking ship.
Being the gentleman that he is on and off the pitch, it is highly unlikely that Salah would take over the captaincy in the face of Fathy’s protests. That should quiet things down because it appears El-Badry is seeking to stamp his authority on the team early, even if it means creating a controversy that was wholly unnecessary.
It is believed the decision to make Salah captain is the Football Association of Egypt’s way of making amends with Salah after The Best FIFA Football Awards voting debacle when administration errors rendered their pick of Salah void.
But righting a wrong by creating a hullabaloo that came out of nowhere is not the way to assuage Salah’s feelings.
Fathy is 34. Sooner or later, Salah, who is only 27, will wear the captain’s armband. The problem is, that coronation might come sooner than expected. Salah is due to return to international duty next month for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Kenya and away to Comoros.