Ramadan football tournaments today make kids feel like true professionals
For as long as anyone can seem to remember, football tournaments have been a staple of Ramadan - not just in Egypt but in the whole of the Middle East - a region that’s absolutely crazy about football. While the tradition may have started on ragged terrain, many teams are sponsored today, have a proper manager, play on flawless pitches, and attract hundreds of spectators during the Holy Month.
But how did this particular combination of Ramadan and football turn from what is for many a way to kill time, to a seasonal phenomena that year after year is becoming more and more of a seasonal staple? How did informal gatherings of friends and neighbours on dirt pitches turn into highly organised, funded tournaments?
Some of the country's biggest tournaments started very modestly. Mohamed Farouk is the co-founder of SportXGlobal, a sports management agency that organises sophisticated football tournaments, not only in Ramadan, but all year long. Reminiscing on his early beginnings, he says that "organising tournaments for me began in a very small way. I remember, at the age of 13, my friends and I used to organise a tournament in Ramadan at the spot we used to get together at for boy scouts. It was a sandy outdoor pitch, and we made goal posts out of stones. It was a small tournament, 6 teams, and each team paid a small fee. That fee was used to buy a gift that would go to the winning team. Even though it was a small thing, the fact that we were competing made us take it seriously. So you could say those were my beginnings in organising Ramadan football tournaments”.
Ahmed Hamed, founder of the popular Goal Diggers, reminisces on Al Gezira Club's 7-a-side tournaments that happened around 15 years ago, considering this one of the most entertaining athletic gatherings ever to be organised in Egypt. The tournament hosted 16 teams (Goal Diggers hosts 32), and already included prize money. But it was more than just a football tournament. At the time, before the expansion of Sheikh Zayed and 5th settlement residential compounds, Gezira Club was the social hub for the higher and middle class, where hundreds of youngsters would mingle together on a daily basis, whether they were interested in football or not. Good old days.
Tournaments in the past were much less sophisticated than those you see today. Many took place at youth centers; the best players of the area would make teams and compete against each other during the Holy Month. This attracted supporters from the area and started to become a running tradition.
In the region, Ramadan and football are very connected. Although football addicts play all year long, they usually play with friends, and they don’t get that same feeling that they get when playing in Ramadan’s highly organised tournaments. During the Holy Month, there are numerous options for tournaments, and lots of money to be won. It’s a tradition; the youth of Egypt wait for Ramadan impatiently because they know that after Iftar, it’s game time. Farouk explains, "a healthy player can play up to 5 Ramadan tournaments, so it’s really fun; you eat iftar and then have tournaments in different locations every day, one day a tournament in Zamalek, one day in Maadi, another in Seid Club, so we take this very seriously, especially because you can win big money, like 40,000 or 50,000 EGP per player for the winners, so it gets people really excited." That's pretty crazy, 5 tournaments at the same time. But when you're football-mad, you eat Iftar, gather some energy in any way you can (drinking a Red Bull isn't a bad idea), and head to the pitches.
Two years ago, while reminiscing on his childhood, Farouk had the idea to start a business that organises football tournaments, both for corporate teams and independent ones. He knew that he was far from the first one to have this idea, but he thought about doing it an extremely professional way, and was hoping that that would set him apart from the competition. He wanted to recreate the atmosphere that he had seen in the top European Leagues, so he got instruments that supporters would use to cheer their teams on, such as boards, vuvuzelas, and flags, and on the digital side, he tried to create as much engagement as possible with fans and players alike. He had the idea to include commentators and referees, scrutinizing every little detail to make his tournaments both professional and cool. The tournament schedules are posted on social media, as well as results and high quality photos of players competing. Farouk insists that their "event is not just like any Ramadan tournament; we aim to deliver the full championship experience and make your employees feel that they’re football superstars for one day. It is not just for football players only; all employees are welcomed to join and cheer for their colleagues as we offer the perfect atmosphere." The tournaments are set on flawless outdoor astro turf pitches with massive floodlights, and sponsors are happy to represent the tournament, with advertisement boards on the side of every pitch. The players are required to have a team uniform, and winners are rewarded with prize money and medals in the closing ceremony. The organisers even went as far as getting a deal with Uber, allowing players to use a promo code and get discounted fares. This is not just your average tournament at the park. Everything about these tournaments screams professionalism; that’s the extent to how organised some of these tournaments are today.
Hamed began organising tournaments when he sadly lost hope in pursuing a professional football career. "It all started after I got several knee injuries that stopped me from pursuing my professional football career. Back then I met my partner Ali Ayad at AUC and we began organizing athletic events for our colleagues at the University. And by the time of our graduation we thought of transforming 'AUCian' extracurricular activities into actual Ramadan football tournaments; the cleverly named "Goal Diggers". Only a year after its foundation, the two football-mad friends received several offers from Cairo's top notch residential compounds such as Palm Hills, Pyramid Hills and SODIC, and that was the moment they realised that this could turn into a profitable business.
Though Ramadan tournaments are nothing new, social media and sponsorship packages have completely changed the game, as Hamed realised early on in the organisation of these tournaments. Today, having social media followers means money. Big companies, such as Energia or Nile FfM are happy to sponsor tournaments when they know that the exposure is there. This includes on-site advertising, as well as social media advertising. In turn, this generates funds for the tournament organisers, and allows offering big prize money to winners. Everyone’s happy. Well, except the losers.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing in the organization of these tournaments. The main hurdle faced by Farouk was finding suitable locations; there weren’t many of them free to use, and many were overpriced. Also, he was adamant in finding locations which weren’t “commercial”, like the youngsters like to say today, and it was challenging to find a “cool” place that would attract the youth. Hamed recalls the struggles in approaching doubtful sponsors after the economic recession, who weren't exactly in the best position to be taking financial risks. Also, as "Goal Diggers" strictly only allows amateurs to participate, the organisers had to go through rigorous checks to find out if the players were registered in the federation, which officially makes them professionals on paper.
Also, another challenge which is still being faced is the control of hot-blooded, adrenaline-filled Egyptian footballers. Some don’t know how to lose, and it becomes very challenging to control them in that state. The fact that there is prize money involved causes more problems; fights happen regularly, and organisers have to manage finding a way to control this and not let it boil over completely. Mo' money, mo' problems.
Even though they’ve been around for a while, Ramadan football tournaments are still growing in popularity. In 2006, “The Employer’s Corporate Football Tournament” had 25 participating teams, reaching 66 teams in 2017, and 80 teams today, comprised of a total of 960 players. It’s clear to see that football and Ramadan go together like peanut butter and jelly, and that playing tournaments during the Holy Month is a tradition that is not going anywhere.
Main image from SODIC