Egyptian footballer handed ban for political celebration

Story highlights

  • Al Ahly forward Ahmed Abdul Zaher indefinitely suspended after controversial gesture
  • Egyptian put up for sale by club and barred from playing in FIFA Club World Cup
  • Footballer celebrated African Champions League final goal with political salute

It should have been the proudest moment in his life -- instead Ahmed Abdul Zaher finds himself embroiled in controversy and his career in doubt after scoring the goal that helped his club win this year's African Champions League.

The 28-year-old's first reaction -- prior to being wrestled to the floor by his Al Ahly teammates in celebration -- was to hold out four fingers in a gesture that has become synonymous with ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy.

Known as 'Rabaa', which means four, the salute is considered the symbol of defiance against military rule and refers to the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque where supporters of Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood clashed with the army in August, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

Read: Clashes turn Cairo square into 'war zone'

Even though Zaher claims his actions had no political meaning, the tense political situation in Egypt was highlighted by the strength of the sanctions meted out to him by Al Ahly's board on Tuesday.

The forward has not only been put up for sale but also barred from competing in next month's FIFA Club World Cup -- a tournament that carries special significance in Africa since it affords teams a rare chance to play with the world watching while testing themselves against some of the planet's best players.

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In a statement that explained the club's "firm rejection of mixing politics and sport", Al Ahly also revealed that Abdul Zaher will also miss out on any financial bonus gained from the club's continental triumph.

Supporters of the stringent sanctions will argue that Abdul Zaher's actions could have had serious repercussions as Cairo hosted a major football match with fans in attendance for one of the few times since last year's stadium disaster in Port Said.

The rampage in February 2012 left 74 people dead and 1,000 injured after the Port Said home team, al-Masry, defeated a visiting Al Ahly side.

A majority of the victims in the stadium rampage were Al Ahly fans, with many believing they had been targeted after their role in the revolution had helped topple longstanding President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Read: Deadly Egyptian riots go beyond football

"I did do the sign but did not intend any political incitement for any group or any fan," Abdul Zaher said in a statement.

"I meant it in mourning for the Egyptians who died in Rabaa (al-Adawiya square), including citizens, soldiers and policemen."

Zaher's comments come despite his status as one of the few football stars who participated in the Muslim Brotherhood's sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square.

Zaher is not the first Egyptian sportsman to suffer because of his association with the gesture.

Last month, an Egyptian kung fu champion who wore a T-shirt with the Rabaa sign was barred from representing his country and stripped of a medal he had won at a tournament in Russia.

Zaher's agent said the controversial celebration had its roots in personal tragedy that stemmed from the August actions, when security forces stormed the pro-Morsy camp a month after the military had ousted the Islamist leader.

"What he meant by the sign is that he was mourning one of his friends who died during the events surrounding the clearing of Rabaa al-Adawiya square in August," said Mohammed Sheiha.

"Abdul Zaher wrote an apology to the Al Ahly club's board of directors and the Egyptian public for showing the Rabaa sign during the match between Ahly and Orlando Pirates."

Zaher's goal in Cairo, which clinched an aggregate 3-1 victory over the South African side as Al Ahly landed a record eighth continental crown, sealed their place in the Club World Cup.

Africa will stage the tournament for the first time when Morocco hosts an event that begins on 11 December, with Al Ahly playing Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande three days later.

Champions League winners Bayern Munich and South America's Copa Libertadores holders Atletico Mineiro, who boast Ronaldinho in their number, are among those contesting the seven-team event.

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