CAIRO (AP) — The coach of Egypt’s national soccer team says he only wants players who observe Islam and the selection of his squad is based equally on religious piety and skill.
The comments by Hassan Shehata, published Thursday in Egyptian newspapers, show how sports and religion are increasingly mixing in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of some 80 million.
The intrusion of religion into sports is part of the country’s gradual movement toward religious conservatism over the last few decades, with more people praying at mosques, most women adopting the Islamic veil in public and diminishing tolerance for secular Muslims or minority Christians.
For years, Egyptian athletes have demonstrated their religious piety in front of fans and the media — kneeling down to offer a prayer of thanks after scoring a goal or winning a game, or praying before games to implore God to come to their team’s aid.
But Shehata’s comments take religion in sports to a whole new level.
He was quoted by several Cairo newspapers as saying skill alone won’t guarantee anyone a place on the national team, which is currently defending its African continental title in Angola.
He said “pious behavior” was the main category for selection.
“Without it, we will never select any player regardless of his potential. I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God.”
One newspaper, the independent al-Shorouk, quoted Shehata as saying that striker Ahmed “Mido,” on loan from England’s Middlesborough to Cairo’s Zamalek, was cut after his initial selection because he did not fit the manager’s prerequisite for piety.
Mido was cut four days after his selection late last month in a surprise decision given that Egypt already was missing through injury Amr Zaki, formerly a striker with England’s Wigan, as well as attacking midfielder Mohammed Abu Trekka.
Mido, who enjoys a reputation for hard partying, said he was insulted by his exclusion.
Shehata, a former player for Egypt’s national team best remembered for his midfield creativity, has not made a secret of the big role religion plays in what he does.
He is consistently seen by millions of fans and TV viewers murmuring prayers during games. He often asks supporters to pray for the national side.
In Thursday’s comments, Shehata boasted of how he convinced Egyptian striker Mohammed Zidan, who plays for the German team Dortmund, to pray.
“I did not like how he used to be aloof and not mix with the rest. … I convinced him of the need to pray and how important it is. He has been praying since.”
Shehata is looking for his third straight Africa Cup title after leading six-time champion Egypt to victory in 2006 and 2008. Egypt began its title defense Tuesday with an emphatic, come-from-behnd 3-1 win over World Cup qualifier Nigeria.
However, Shehata failed to take Egypt to this year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, losing to Algeria 1-0 in a make-or-break decider last year. Egypt last qualified to the World Cup in 1990.