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Egyptian authorities go after futsal fields

The Egyptian government decided to remove all futsal fields squatting agricultural lands, which raised the ire of the youths whose main outlet is sports.

CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture decided Nov. 26 to remove public futsal fields squatting private agricultural lands. The decision sparked widespread controversy as parliamentary and youth demands were raised to suspend it.

Futsal is a variant of soccer played with a smaller ball and field and five players per team.

The ministry's spokesman, Hamed Abdel-Dayem, explained in televised statements Dec. 2 that these fields “represent an encroachment on agricultural lands,” noting that the “lands are being used for purposes other than those for which they are designated, which is agriculture.”

The decision comes as part of a campaign launched by the Egyptian government to remove encroachments on private agricultural lands stretching over 85,000 feddans (88,216 acres) in all governorates. The Ministry of Agriculture counted 2,400 futsal fields across the various governorates. By Nov. 30, it had removed 240 fields in Qena, Upper Egypt, alone.

In a televised statement Dec. 6, Abdel-Dayem said that the ministry will demolish buildings and facilities occupying agricultural lands.

But the decision raised criticism by a number of Egyptian parliamentarians. Member of parliament Mohammed Badrawi called in statements to Al-Monitor for the suspension of the campaign until alternative sports facilities for the youth are made available.

Badrawi said, “The campaign launched by the Ministry of Agriculture ought to be implemented in tandem with the provision of alternative premises where young Egyptians can play futsal. This game is the most popular game in Egypt; it attracts the vast majority of Egyptian youths. What happened was a random removal of futsal fields without considering the consequences of this decision. This is all the more concerning since the Ministry of Youth and Sports provides a very limited number of fields.”

Asserting the need to suspend the campaign, he noted that agricultural lands where futsal fields are set up account for only about 800 feddans (830 acres). “This is out of a total of 85,000 feddans of agricultural lands subject to other types of violations, whether constructions or exploitation for purposes other than agriculture,” Badrawi noted. “These other encroachments ought to be removed before the futsal fields, just to give their owners enough time to try to legalize their status and obtain licenses. But the government chose to start with the weakest link in this chain.”

The futsal fields were illegally set up on agricultural lands without permits causing soil infertility in the best arable lands in the country, while generating major profits for the owners, according to a May 17 report by Al-Ahram website.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports has determined several conditions to allow for licensing the fields, including establishing a sports company, obtaining permits for water and electricity supplies, determining specifications for the field’s ground, meeting safety conditions, and not violating the law on the allowed built up and land, according to statements Nov. 30 by the ministry’s spokesman, Mohammed Fawzi.

In a statement Dec. 2 to Ten TV, Fawzi said that 185 youth centers would get soccer fields, slated to be completed by March 2019, as an alternative to the illegal futsal fields.

Badrawi fears this campaign would drive the youths to drug use or to misuse their free time. “This is not what the Egyptian government wants,” he said.

Sports critic Yasser Ayoub shares the same opinion. “Everyone supports the respect and enforcement of the law and the preservation of agricultural lands, but there must be alternatives,” he told Al-Monitor. “Finding such alternatives is the task of many state bodies.”

He said, “The youths have the right to play futsal, not to mention the direct benefit of this sport. These fields have helped discover talented youths. Exploiting these talents is of great benefit for Egyptian sports in general. Liverpool soccer star Mohamed Salah is the best example; he began his career on these [futsal] fields.”

Ayoub explained that since the Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sports was unable to meet the needs of young people and develop futsal fields, some people took the initiative in some rural areas. “We do not wish to complicate things for young people. We hope that the decision would be reviewed and not all fields demolished,” Ayoub said.

In a statement Nov. 30, parliamentarian Sahar Sedqi called for allocating 500 square meters (roughly 5,400 square feet) of state-owned land in every village across the governorates to futsal fields. “It is the right of the citizens of the governorates to have an outlet instead of turning to deviant hobbies and behaviors,” Sedqi said.

Ahmad Magdi, 20, from Beheira governorate, joins his friends once a week to play futsal. “The decision would prevent many young people and amateurs from practicing the most popular sport [in Egypt]. The decision was made to protect state-owned lands from infringements, but there are plenty of other buildings and facilities squatting public areas, which should have been the first to be held accountable following the decision, instead of private agricultural lands,” he told Al-Monitor.

“Even if they were illegal, they remain an outlet for young people. As a soccer player, I can say that the fields that are to be demolished are well-equipped and constitute a basic source of income for their owners and sponsors. They are also well-maintained. The youth centers do not provide this service,” he added.

At a conference in early December, Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Subhi said these fields are “illegal,” explaining that establishing random futsal fields on agricultural lands only leads to further urban sprawl and the destruction of agricultural lands.

Sayyed Taha, owner of a futsal field in Giza governorate, acknowledged that building upon agricultural land is illegal, but he stressed the difficult process of obtaining a permit to set up a field. “These fields are a source of livelihood for many and are an outlet for many young people to play their favorite sport. We hope to find compromises that would work for all parties,” Taha told Al-Monitor.

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