Cairo, Dec 12 (EFE).- Egyptian Christian Mena Bendary saw his dream of becoming a professional soccer player shattered in the Muslim-majority nation, where Copts suffer from systematic discrimination on the pitch.
In 2014, the 26-year-old passed the tests to play as a professional in the Egyptian premium league al-Ittihad club in Alexandria but was later rejected because of his Christian name.
“They told me I had to change my name from Mena William Bendary to another Muslim name in order to be a player, so I decided not to return to the club and to leave soccer entirely,” he says during an interview with Efe.
Mena’s story is similar to “many more” people who feel left out after being forced to give up their identity to make a name for themselves in the sport, which has only seen a dozen Christians making it to the top in the past 50 years.
Mena set up Je Suis in 2015, an academy to train young Christian and Muslim boys and girls who share a passion for the sport.
His mission is “to help Christians play soccer, especially families who stopped sending their children to club trials to avoid rejection,” which, in his opinion, “could affect the love they have for our country.”
Today, Je Suis has around 250 boys and girls committed to “changing society’s ideas,” hoping that one day the academy can become a first division club to challenge the stereotype that Copts are not gifted soccer players.
Up to 15% of the Egyptian population is Christian, but their representation on all levels is nowhere near this percentage.
Coptic Solidarity NGO official Lindsay Rodriguez tells Efe that “the number of Copts remains around 2% in almost all sectors, be it in the judicial system, in education, government jobs, diplomats… Everywhere you look, Copts make up 2%, but in soccer, the figure is even lower than that.”
Currently, the Egyptian soccer team does not have a single Christian player.
Across the first division’s 18 clubs, Christians represent less than 1%. There are only five among the more than 670 registered soccer players, based on the players’ names.
But the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) says that it has no data in this regard.
Coptic Solidarity has investigated the situation and has recorded many cases of Egyptians being rejected because of their names and their beliefs, according to Rodriguez.
The Egyptian Football Association’s spokesman, Walid al-Attar, told Efe that the federation does not have figures on the number of Copts in the first division and says that “there are no restrictions or discrimination among Muslims and Christians in Egyptian soccer.”
“Not having enough Christian players in the first division indicates nothing,” says al-Attar, adding that they have not received any complaints from FIFA on the matter.
FIFA, meanwhile, claimed it is not in a position to arrange an interview with Efe, but said, in a brief email, that it has held talks on this matter with the relevant parties.
Only a few Egyptian celebrities, including former Egypt and Tottenham striker Ahmed Hossam ‘Mido’, have dared to address the issue over fear of retaliation, Rodriguez adds.
“Honestly, in Egypt, there is a lot of discrimination and, in my opinion, we have to deal with it. Is it logical that only five Christians have made it to the elite in the entire history of Egyptian soccer?” Mido asked during an interview aired on local television in 2018.
Since then, Mido has not brought up the subject again and declined an interview with Efe.EFE