ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Egypt's first World Cup in 28 years has captivated the soccer-crazy nation, with intense focus on the squad and the broader game.
The Egyptians played the first match of the tournament June 15 and held two-time World Cup winner Uruguay scoreless for 89 minutes, until conceding a late goal and losing 1-0.
Still, the performance — with star striker Mohamed Salah injured on the sidelines — attracted international praise and gripped the millions of people gathering in groups across Egypt to watch their team together.
It was a welcome distraction for Egyptians who are struggling under harsh economic conditions. The 3-1 loss in the next match to host Russia, even with Salah back in the lineup, ended Egypt's chances of advancing beyond the group stage. Despite the loss, the love and respect enjoyed by the team and the players remained intact.
Yet it wasn't an entirely unifying experience. For the country's Christians, about 10 percent of the population, the composition of the team and the way the squad was perceived highlighted what they believe is a problem with the sport in Egypt.
No Christian has been on the national soccer squad for more than a decade, and just one played for any of the 18 top-flight clubs last season.
Egyptian coaches and officials dismiss any suggestion of discrimination, but Christians disagree. Egypt's Christian spiritual leader has broken the church's silence on the issue by publicly complaining about their disproportionate representation in the sport.
Egypt's all-Muslim World Cup squad is known for being pious. The team even chose to make its World Cup base in Muslim Chechnya.
The national squad has been nicknamed the prostrators because the players offer a Muslim prayer when they score. They regularly pray together when in camp and read the opening verse of the Quran before kickoff. Some perform the Muslim ritual wash before games. Generally, they frame competition, wins and defeats in religious terms.
Hassan Shehatah, one of Egypt's most successful coaches, said nearly a decade ago that, to him, a player's religious piety was as important as his skills. Hassan led an all-Muslim squad to win three of Egypt's seven African titles between 2006 and 2010. When goalkeeper Mohamed Elshenawy was named man of the match against Uruguay, he refused the Budweiser-sponsored award on religious grounds.
The perceived exclusion of Christians from top flight soccer and the national team is at odds with the outreach to the ancient community by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt's general-turned-president who led the military's 2013 ouster of an Islamist president. El-Sissi has emphatically and repeatedly spoken about inclusion and sectarian harmony. However, his government, critics and some Christians say, has failed to shield the community from the day-to-day discrimination, particularly in rural areas with less state authority and religious tolerance.
Pope Tawadros II, head of the Orthodox Coptic Christians and a close el-Sissi ally, rarely speaks publicly of discrimination, but has recently waded into the issue with uncustomary bluntness. "It's extraordinary that all of Egypt's football teams don't have a single Copt who has good legs and who kicked a ball on the streets when he was little," he said.
Ahmed Hossam, a retired striker — and a Muslim who played for some of Europe's biggest clubs — was more blunt.
He claimed in a recent television interview that youth team coaches were driving Christians away.
"Regrettably, there's a lot of people in Egypt who are bigoted over color, religion and ethnicity," Hossam, better known as Mido, said. "We must confront them and not bury our heads in the sand. Can you believe it that in the history of football in Egypt, only five Christians played at the top level?"
As the only Christian on his soccer youth team, Ramon Zhery says he tried everything he could to blend in with his teammates. At the end, it was not enough. Zhery, now 28, plays for a third division club in southern Egypt. He says discrimination against his faith kept him from rising further.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Zhery recounted how he tried to establish harmony with his teammates and reassure them that, though a Christian, he was just another player like them.
When they huddled before kickoff to recite the Quran's opening verse — a ritual meant to serve as a plea for divine help — he whispered a Christian prayer to himself. When at camp, he woke up before everyone and went about rousing them to perform the dawn prayers, one of five that Muslims offer daily.
"Mohammed Salah is a world star and he prostrates every time he scores and everyone knows he is a Muslim," said Zhery.
The Christians' response to their perceived exclusion from domestic soccer has been "church football" — a nationwide league of five-a-side teams that is played mostly on church grounds or rented pitches.
Andrew Raafat, a physical education teacher who tried his luck in club soccer before he settled for a coaching job at a Cairo Church, says some of the better young players he works with want to play at the top level.
"I cannot tell them that they will never be selected," Raafat said. "They get selected sometimes, but they are later let go."
Not everyone agrees. Retired international midfielder Ismail Youssef, soccer director of Cairo's Zamalek club, dismissed suggestions of discrimination.
"I don't think they are deliberately excluded, the better ones among them get to play," Youssef said. "There is no nepotism in football."
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup