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Russia 2018: High hopes and huge debt as Egypt's fans head to World Cup

Watching Egypt play live from the stadium in Russia at the World Cup is a dream come true for Egyptians willing to take out big loans to get there
Supporters of Egypt attend the World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying football match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg al-Arab stadium in Alexandria in October, 2017 (AFP)

CAIRO – Mohamed Tamer was only five years old when Egypt last qualified for the World Cup in 1990 in Italy. As a toddler, he would watch a ball fly across the television screen, still unaware of what a football game could mean to him and millions of Egyptians years later.

Since then, he has watched his national team miss the qualification for the international football tournament six consecutive times.

A young supporter of Egypt attends the World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying football match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg al-Arab stadium in Alexandria in October, 2017 (AFP)
In October 2017, Egypt finally qualified for the 2018 World Cup, which will take place in Russia from 14 June until 15 July. Tamer says it will be difficult to watch the historic games thousands of kilometres away from behind a television screen in Cairo.  

He dreams of catching the action live from the Ekaterinburg Arena in Russia, where Egypt will compete against Uruguay on 15 June

In order to make this a reality, Tamer, a 33-year-old bank teller, decided to take out a loan to finance his trip and watch Egypt's first game. 

I’m dreaming of the moment I enter the stadium, carrying the Egyptian flag

- Tamer, bank teller

“Without the loan, I would never be able to watch the World Cup from the stands,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m dreaming of the moment I enter the stadium, carrying the Egyptian flag.”

Tamer applied for a 45,800 EGP ($2,602) loan at Banque Misr, Egypt's second-largest state bank, to cover the travel expenses.

With a salary of around 10,000 EGP including bonuses and overtime ($568), he will have to pay 1,488 EGP ($84) a month for 36 months, which includes a 17 percent interest rate. 

“I know I’m losing a big chunk of my salary, but who knows when we will qualify again for the World Cup,” he said.

To attend Egypt’s second game against Russia four days later, he would have to double the loan he is taking out. 

“I wish I could attend all three matches, but financially I cannot do it,” he said. “Anyway I’m not greedy, one match is enough. It is more than enough for a fan who has waited 30 years to see Egypt in the World Cup.”

Egypt will be playing in a group along with Russia, Uruguay and Saudia Arabia. The overall expenses of a trip to Russia, including flights, accommodation and a ticket to a match can amount to $2,000 – and that excludes day to day expenses. Tickets to matches are available on the FIFA website, with tickets to Egypt’s games costing up to $200.

A chance to watch the games

Others are still scrambling for a chance to see the games.

“I have watched Egypt miss qualifying for the World Cup my entire life. Now, I cannot miss the opportunity to watch Egypt play in Russia,” Mostafa Ekram said, as he followed a Liverpool game on TV, with its star, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah.

Egypt's forward Mohamed Salah controls the ball during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations group D football match between Egypt and Ghana in Port-Gentil in January, 2017 (AFP)
The recently crowned African Footballer of the Year scored the penalty against Congo that sent Egypt to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

“When Salah scored the penalty against Congo, he erased all of the bad memories associated with Egypt and the World Cup,” Ekram said. “Now we have to register new memories by supporting the team in the stands there.”

Ekram’s biggest disappointment was when Egypt failed to beat Algeria in the World Cup in 2010, followed by a crushing 6-1 defeat against Ghana in the 2014 qualifiers.

However, since the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, which plunged against the dollar in November 2016, Ekram has been facing financial challenges. To pay for this trip, he would need a large lump sum to pay upfront – which he cannot afford.

My income lost half of its value in dollars

- Mostafa Ekram, sales manager

“My income lost half of its value in dollars,” he lamented. 

Ekram, who works as a sales manager at a French company, does not have a fixed monthly salary, but gets paid based on the monthly sales targets he achieves. On average, he makes approximately 30,000 EGP ($1,704) a month. 

Mostafa Ekram, who works in Cairo as a sales manager at a French company, is hoping to see Egypt play at the World Cup (MEE/Mohamed Mahmoud)
Ekram has been trying to convince some friends to attend the World Cup this summer. Travel agencies are organising trips for people wishing to travel to Russia for the games and Ekram is hoping they can get a good deal.

Bank loans 

Prices for hotels and flights have soared in Russia for the international event. To help show support for Egypt, many banks are offering different loans with various interest rates based on the number of years the applicant would be able to pay back the loan. 

The funds are offered to government employees as well as the self-employed and to owners of commercial and industrial activities, in addition to pensioners receiving retirement funds.

We consider it a national duty to support the national team

- PR employee, Banque Misr

“We consider it a national duty to support the national team. What we can do is support the fans' trips to guarantee good attendance in Russia,” said a PR employee at the bank, who spoke to MEE anonymously because he is not authorised to speak to the press. 

According to the employee, it was the dire economic situation that prompted the “unprecedented” decision. He said that the bank has received many inquiries for funding but those who actually apply for the loan are not “as many as we expected” yet.

"Our call centre is getting more inquiries, but only hundreds have submitted the loan application so far,” he said. 

The National Bank of Egypt also announced its own loan funding programme. Clients can pay off their loans without interest over six months and then with a 5-10 percent interest rate over one year, according to a customer service officer. To make his dream come true, Ekram has submitted a loan application and is awaiting a response.

'We will help ourselves'

Others who refuse to settle for watching the games on television are searching for other routes to Russia.

In 1990, Yasser Hussein was 20 years old when he managed to travel to Italy to watch Egypt in its last appearance in the World Cup. 

“The whole trip to watch the three matches including a stay in a three-star hotel and the flights cost me EGP 10,000 ($568),” said Hussein, now a 48-year-old owner of a small import/export company. 

Hussein is used to supporting his favourite team from the stands, as he follows Cairo giant Ahly club wherever they play in Africa.

I would never be able to afford this, but i could never miss watching Egypt in the World Cup

- Hussein, small businessowner

“I have never missed an important away match for Al-Ahly,” he said.

After asking around different travel agencies, Hussein discovered that in order to watch Egypt's three matches in Russia, he would need no less than EGP 80,000 ($4,538).

“This is a big sum. I would never be able to afford this, but I could never miss watching Egypt in the World Cup,” he asserted. 

Supporters of Egypt attend the World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying football match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg al-Arab stadium in Alexandria in October, 2017 (AFP)
After some deliberations, a group of around 50 of Hussein’s friends decided the best way to support Egypt in Russia was to organise their own trip. 

“We won't use travel agencies. We will book the cheapest flights, and the cheapest accommodation, to reduce the cost to a minimal amount," Hussein said. 

According to Hussein, with Russian hostels costing between $10-15 a night, he can do the whole trip for $1600, which is much more affordable.

Debts 'for fun'

Reem Selim, an economic analyst at the Kuwait-based Diplomatic Centre for Strategic Studies, said that bank loans to support fans' trips reflect “the decreasing purchasing power of the majority of Egyptians and the sharp drop in the value of real income in the upper middle class”.

She does not expect many young people to take out loans for the World Cup. 

"I don’t expect that these instalment offers will attract a vast array of youth.”

Given the fact that only 32 percent of Egyptians have bank accounts, Selim explained that loans are mostly solicited to cover marriage expenses, or to buy a car or a house, rather than taking trips. 

Who knows how many years we will have to wait to see Egypt in the World Cup again?

- Tamer, bank teller

Moreover, she pointed out that the high cost of travel will “make it difficult for a vast array of youth to pay the monthly instalment itself”.

Still, Tamer, the bank teller, feels that the historic moment in Egyptian football is too important to ignore. 

"It’s not that easy. We have many commitments, but [this experience] deserves the money spent,” he said after getting approved for a 45,000 loan to attend one game at the World Cup. 

“Who knows how many years we will have to wait to see Egypt in the World Cup again?” he asked. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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