The game has been a centerpiece of Omar Mohamed Hany’s life.
From playing on the streets of Cairo, to helping him make a life in Boston, to his current adventure in Russia for the World Cup, soccer has been intertwined with his story.
Hany, who lives in the Boston area after growing up in Egypt, will be in Russia to watch all of his native country’s games. It was never a question for him. As soon as Egypt qualified for the tournament, the nation’s first since 1990, Hany knew he had to be there.
“We won the tickets!”
Getting tickets for the World Cup isn’t easy. In fact, it requires luck. Many of the tickets are raffled off.
“My brother and I were just like, ‘Hey, let’s take a shot in the dark,’” Hany said. “Let’s just apply for tickets for the Egypt games. We didn’t think anything of it.”
Weeks went by and Hany didn’t hear anything about it. Finally, he got a strange update.
“First I saw my credit card got $800 deducted and I was like, ‘Oh!’ They said they weren’t going to take the money unless we won, so I went to my email then and saw we got it.”
Immediately, he called his brother back in Cairo.
“I called at 4 a.m. over there, and told him, ‘We won the tickets!’ It’s weird to because at first you’re like, ‘Hey, we’re going to the World Cup,’ But then it’s like, ‘Oh shit, we’re going to the World Cup!’ And it’s February, and we need to start making plans as soon as possible.”
On Tuesday, Hany and his brother flew to Russia after making arrangements. They will be in Yakaterinburg, St. Petersburg and Moscow during their stay. And if Egypt qualify for the knockout stages, Hany says he will be there however long the run goes.
“If they make it past the round of 16, I’ll quit my job and we’ll stay,” Hany proudly explained. “I can find another job, but I don’t think I’ll find another World Cup where Egypt makes it past the round of 16.”
Understanding why someone can be so committed to a World Cup team, even at the potential cost of his job, can be difficult. But in Hany’s case, it’s easy to see based on his story.
“That’s something that every kid in Cairo experiences in their life.”
Hany grew up in Nasr City, a district in Cairo. As a child, he spent his time playing soccer whenever (and wherever) he could.
“You just play on the streets, with your club, at school, wherever you can,” said Hany. “You can have games on the streets, a car would honk and you stop the game. No actual nets, just two large stones and that’s the goal. And you always have the argument that the ball just went on top of the stone and not in the goal. That’s something that every kid in Cairo experiences in their life.”
When he was 16, Hany and his cousin optimistically bought a package of tickets to see Africa Cup of Nations games at Cairo Stadium when Egypt hosted the tournament in 2006.
Though Egypt wasn’t favored in the tournament, he figured it would be fun to see other African stars of the era.
“My mom was like, ‘You paid 90 pounds for nine games and Egypt’s not even going to make the final?’” Hany remembered. “And I thought it’s okay. We’ll see [Didier] Drogba, [Samuel] Eto’o, Kanu for Nigeria, whoever. It was a good period for African football.”
In a surprising twist, Egypt made a miraculous run to the final, which Hany and his cousin were present to see.
“The way they organize games with the security is completely messed up,” Hany explained, noting that he had to arrive hours before kickoff just to get in.
Unexpectedly, his mother and younger brother were able to get in because of a sympathetic policeman, who led them around to another entrance and got them into the stadium.
“My brother ended up sitting on my lap, and my cousin sat on my mom’s lap,” he said. “There were people sitting on the stairway. The atmosphere was so different.”
“I never really felt scared. But then again, I was 21.”
One major event that Hany lived through before coming to Boston was the January 25 Revolution. It saw protests on the streets of Cairo, only miles from Hany’s family home. And it saw the removal of longstanding Egyptian president Ḥosnī Mubārak.
“There were protests on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Friday is the first day of the weekend over there. Protests reached their peak on that Friday,” Hany remembered. “That’s when you know it’s done. The police abandoned the streets. People were told if you want to protect your property, go in front of your house.”
Hany relayed how the moment brought his community together.
“It was weird because for two weeks, nobody worked. You just went in shifts to work as security in front of your house or apartment building. After a while, having never communicated with your neighbors before, you got to know them.”
For Hany, as was the case for many living in Cairo, it was a dangerous time. Two weeks afterward, Mubārak was ousted.
“The weirdest thing was just waking up and Mubarak was president anymore,” Hany said. “He was there for 30 years. I was 21, so he was there my whole life.”
Despite curfews, protests, and violence, Hany said he handled it without too much stress.
“I never really felt scared,” he said. “But then again, I was 21.”
“You normalize something that’s bad,” Hany said of constant news about protesters being killed and daily violence. “Talking about it feels weird, but living through it wasn’t weird. You get through your daily life normally. You stay out of the areas where you knew the protests would be.”
“It became all Liverpool over time”
Even during the height of the protests and violence in 2011, Egypt’s soccer league continued to play.
Yet in Feb. 2012, that took a tragic turn in what is known as the Port Said disaster. Egyptian team Al-Ahly lost 3-1 in an away game at Al-Masry. Following the game, fans clashed with each other. More than 70 were killed and over 1,000 were injured as police blocked the exits, preventing fans from escaping.
The incident led to the banning of fans from stadiums for all Egyptian Premier League games for years afterward (it’s only beginning to be rolled back in 2018).
Hany, who grew up supporting Al-Ahly, slowly drifted away from the club.
“It’s kind of hard to follow now,” he explained. “It’s kind of soulless. There used to be a lot of teams to follow with a lot of fan bases outside of Cairo, but those teams didn’t have the resources to compete. More than half of the teams are representing companies or government institutions. Nothing grows organically.”
In its place, Hany discovered English Premier League team Liverpool, who have become his favorite club.
“Over time I went from about 70 percent Ahly and 30 percent Liverpool, then it got to 50-50, then it became all Liverpool over time.”
In Nov. 2013, Hany left Egypt for the United States. Working in IT, he said it was always going to be his move. Since his uncle lived in Boston, it provided a natural landing spot.
And again, his passion for soccer helped him find a place in his new home. Because he was an active member on a Liverpool online forum, Hany connected with a fellow fan in Boston.
“Funny enough, the friend of mine from the Liverpool forum helped get me my job here in Boston.”
Hany is a frequent visitor to the Phoenix Landing pub in Central Square, where he’s made friends amongst the Liverpool Supporters Club of Boston.
It’s never been a better time to be an Egyptian Liverpool fan, given the current superstar status of winger Mohamed Salah. Only a few years ago, Liverpool was barely known in Egypt.
“Now with Salah, the whole country supports Liverpool,” Hany noted. “And they didn’t even know Liverpool a year ago.”
As for his prospects at the World Cup, Hany knows the fate of the national team – as well as his own adventure in Russia – is linked with the Egyptian goalscorer.
“It’s tied to him,” Hany concludes regarding Salah. “He just makes everybody around him better and more confident.”