In the African Cup of Nations, Egypt has God on its side

BOSTON — It has been three weeks since the deadly terrorist attack in Angola on the bus carrying the Togo soccer team to the African Cup of Nations — an attack which sent shock waves through the continent.

While this year’s tourney will always bear the scars of the tragedy and Toga’s mournful and reluctant withdrawal, there have been no more security breaches and the cup has regained its footing and once again become a scintillating soccer affair.

Thursday’s semi-final match-ups should be particularly compelling, featuring one West African rivalry, Nigeria vs. Ghana, followed by a bitter North African rivalry, Egypt vs. Algeria.

While all four teams are current African soccer powers, one has to favor the defending champion, Egypt, which is seeking a third consecutive — and record sixth — cup triumph. After all, Egypt has God on its side.

Egypt has always been a particularly reverent team, with its players praying together before games for God’s intervention on the field and offering up prayers of thanks along the way for goals and victories.

But Egyptian coach Hassan Sheheta has now boosted the requisite religious devotion for his all-Muslim squad. During the African Cup, Cairo newspapers have quoted his explanations that all players must pass a religious litmus test and that “pious behavior” rather than soccer skills is the primary criterion for making the team.

“Without it, we will never select any player regardless of his potential,” the coach said. “I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God.” He was not posturing, as he had already dumped a talented striker who, while playing in England, gained a reputation for greater attendance at nightclubs than mosques.

Many Americans will likely applaud the Egyptian coach for the logical extension of his faith, especially those who encourage Christian prayer in football locker rooms. Still, try to imagine the outrage if other national teams followed suit: if England insisted that its players worship in the Church of England; if Italy made Catholicism the team’s central tenet; if Germany booted all Turkish Muslims off the field; if Japan played only Buddhists; or if Israel declared itself a Jewish team for a Jewish state and exiled its Arab players.

So one might expect that any religious intrusion on to the Egyptian playing fields would raise concerns at FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, and precipitate a considered response from that organization.

But FIFA is feckless and cowardly. It has stalled any technological innovation that might have staved off a wave of match-fixing scandals. It couldn’t find anything in its rules to sanction French star Thierry Henry, whose cheating won France a spot in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And when it dares to take on a national organization, it is somewhere like Iraq that doesn’t have the wherewithal to muster any resistance.

So, it is not surprising that FIFA has not reacted publicly to Egyptian soccer’s religious mandate, especially during a year in which Africa will host the World Cup. The soccer brass already has much — crime, stadium construction, transportation networks — that it is already nervous about and would rather muzzle itself than risk what some Muslims might view as a provocation.

Egypt’s faith-first approach will certainly get a formidable soccer test against Algeria and, if successful, then either Ghana or Nigeria, all three of which have qualified for the upcoming World Cup.

Egypt and Algeria hadn’t met on the field in 20 years before playing three tense World Cup qualifying matches over sixth months last year. Each team won at home, with the visiting team complaining about threatening behavior by the host’s fans.

In November, the two teams went to neutral Sudan to play a tiebreaker for the 32nd and final spot in the upcoming World Cup. Algeria, which hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986, upset Egypt 1-0. Egyptian officials complained afterward about attacks on its fans by Algerians and an angry Egyptian mob tried to storm the Algerian Embassy in Cairo.

Amid all the dueling outrage, I never heard coach Sheheta account for why his righteous squad lost that critical game. Perhaps it is simply that God loves Algeria and its team too.