Diana is from California but grew up in Iraq, within a culture in which it was frowned upon for females to play football. This has led her to write about issues within the game that are culturally rooted with the aim to voice these to a wider audience. For inspirational writing and for work on the cultural side of football, please read Diana's brilliant work.
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Life is not easy living in societies plagued by political tensions, religious unrest, socioeconomic issues and financial injustices. However, once or twice a week, average people bear witness to a sublime display of artistry by men or women to whom the word ‘genius’ becomes an understatement. Players combine the strength and power of a wrestler with the grace and elegance of a ballet dancer, blending dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork. The game that offers its followers beauty, conflict, tragedy, excitement, rituals, carnival, solidarity, and the ever so often drama. Players are hero-worshipped and based on tradition or choice, the game determines what anthems you sing, what you wear, whom you associate with, and what shrine of superior truth you worship at. Karl Marx was wrong, religion is not the opium of the people, football is.
In a country still suffering the chaos and experiencing the aftermath of a revolution, it seemed that football was Egypt’s only opium for the masses. But that wasn’t the case in recent years.
Football is the most popular sport in Egypt with the Egyptian Premier League split between two teams making up the majority of popular support in the country, leaving lesser support to the rest of the teams. And even then, those who support any of the other teams will pick a second team from these two teams. The whole country is split between Red or White, Al Ahly or Zamalek. When these two teams meet, they create one of (if not) the greatest football rivalry in Africa. This rivalry, like many others, in many ways transcends football. Throwing in class, politics, nationalism and religion into an explosive mix.
Al Ahly is by far the most popular team between the two. Dubbed ‘The Red Devils’ they have won more than 130 official trophies and are recognized by FIFA as the most successful football team in the world. Since the Egyptian Premier League started in 1948-49 – which of course won by Al Ahly – only 18 out of 55 they DIDN’T win. This enormous success, intertwined with the fact that they are based in a city with 8+ million people in a country of 80+ million people has made Al Ahly one of the most supported clubs in world football. Their support in Africa is quite considerable – having won the continent’s Champions League a record 8 times – and the club is estimated to boast more than 50 million supporters.
Following the 2011 revolution that finally toppled former president Hosni Mubarak – a revolution that saw Ultras from Al Ahly and Zamalek stand together on the barricades – Egyptian football has been shocked by a series of tragedies that threatened to irreversibly change the game and the way it is supported and celebrated.
The night of 1 February 2012 was supposed to be an evening to go out with friends and relatives. A chance to vent and watch your favorite football team play. However, before the night was over, the whole country came to a standstill, chaos and misery began to crescendo throughout the streets of Cairo. The night when the fans – the heart and soul – of Egyptian football, were subject to an atrocious massacre that claimed the lives of 72 Al Ahly fans and injured over 1,000 in Port Said following a match between Al Masry and Al Ahly. On that night, football became another source of pain. Fans losing their lives in a horrifying massacre, the painful sight of families and friends screaming hysterically on live television – families and friends waiting at train stations, either you see your loved one, or you don’t. Football was no longer an opium during that night.
What happened was: the match between Port Said’s Al Masry and Cairo’s Al Ahly was almost over with an unexpected scoreline of 3-1 for the home team, when hundreds of Green Eagles (Al Masry Ultras) attacked Ahlawy (Al Ahly Ultras) with sticks, knives, swords and metal boards. According to several testimonies, the police stood by as the bloodshed began and did nothing. By some accounts they even fired at some of the unarmed supporters in the crowd. “Port Said massacre is probably the worst event a football fan would live through.” Said Hesham, a Cairo based football writer and Al Ahly fan. He recounted the night of the tragic event and said “I was watching the match on TV when suddenly the match was stopped after Al Masry’s lead. I saw fans going to the pitch, at first I didn’t think it will result in an incident because the same thing happened in a previous Al Ahly match where some fans went down to the pitch, however, the police intervened.” He was watching the news at the time when more information confirming the death of many Al Ahly fans. “It was truly an extremely difficult time for all Al Ahly fans and football fans in general in Egypt.” Says Hesham.
Soon after the massacre, the Ministry of Interior made a statement in order to shift the blame onto the football fans, and accused them of purposefully wanting to escalate the situation and spread chaos. Few days after that statement, Ultras Ahlawy started to organize protests that included thousands of Egyptians demanding justice for the 72 martyrs until the ones responsible were trialed and sentenced to death. When asked about the state of football support after the massacre, Hesham said: “If you ask any Al Ahly fan, you’ll find that their passion and excitement is not what it used to be like. The pain and sadness of losing loved ones overcame football in Egypt. After Port Said, everything changed for football fans. Watching football matches turned into knowing the scoreline and that’s all.”
One year after the incident, a Cairo court sentenced 21 Green Eagles to death, while 52 others received several years in prison or are still waiting for the verdict. Five of them were sentenced to life in prison while six were sentenced to 10 years. Nine Port Said policemen were among the defendants but only two have been sentenced and are currently serving 15 years in prison. “We still believe there are a lot more security forces that deserve to be punished. They were in the stadium, their job is to protect us but they did nothing.” Said Youssef, a young Al Ahly fan who was there during the match and miraculously escaped with his life that night. When asked about his account of the event he added “The police stepped aside and let these criminals reach our zone. Soon after the pitch invasion, the lights in the stadium were turned off and the exits had all been locked, we were trapped.” He was among some of his friends and fellow fans – panicking and desperate to save their lives – smashed open one of the exit doors and managed to flee to safety. Youssef said “I will never forget that night. I truly thought I was going to die.” After witnessing two of his friends being beaten to death and many other fans being trampled and stomped on by the petrified crowds.
One of the main requests of the Egyptian people during and after the 2011 revolution was a radical reform of the police system, which was perceived as an excessive authoritarian tool in the hands of the state. “The officials should control the fans and ban any weapons or sharp metals but allow fans to enter. The disaster of Port Said widened the gap between the officials and fans and matches lost their passionate spirit afterwards, there is lack of coordination in Egyptian football. Control is always better than total prevention.” Said Fady, a Zamalek fan who lost one of his friends during the attacks in Port Said.
These horrific incidents caused the Egyptian league’s cancellation, which did not resume until 2013 with fans subsequently banned from attending games.
As if that wasn’t enough misery and pain inflicted on a nation still suffering the fresh scars from the past, on 8 February 2015, Egypt witnessed another football disaster. Around 22 fans – many of them children – of Zamalek football team were killed outside a Cairo stadium. The massacre started when Zamalek supporters were gathered outside the turnstiles of the Air Defense stadium to watch the game, when police forces used brutal methods to disperse the crowds. At least 22 Zamalek fans died of asphyxiation from tear gas or were crushed to death in the resulting panic. Much of the media was hasty to blame a group of Zamalek Ultras known as the “White Knights” (UWK) for the tragedy. Accusing the ticketless Zamalek fans of trying to force their way into the stadium. The Ultras meanwhile, accused the police of setting up the biggest ambush in the history of Egypt and kettling in supporters, resulting in their tragic death. Saying that police used a tactic of forcing thousands of football fans through funnel-shaped barricades that had been created for the game. In a country where the league have been cancelled and matches closed to the public for three years, the arrival of thousands of supporters both inevitable and predictable.
Though they stand together in the face of these tragedies, many Ahlawy criticize Zamalek Ultras for taking to the streets and demonstrating against the government’s “closed-stadium” policy in a hostile manner. Over the course of their initiation, these protests have led dozens of Zamalek supporters being killed in clashes with police.
The Cairo derby is still regarded as the most ferocious in Africa and contains one of the most intense atmospheres in the world. For the best part of a century Al Ahly and Zamalek have been fighting out vicious derbies on and off the pitch. Causing death, destruction and in one case during the early 70s the entire league was cancelled. The violence triggered the Egyptian government to ban derby matches at each club’s home stadiums, now all derby matches held at neutral venues. Even Egyptian referees aren’t beyond suspicion – foreign referees are flown in to ensure partiality with their decisions.
However, during the 2011 revolution, Ahlawy and Zamalek Ultras played a leading role in it as thousands fought in Tahrir Square. Setting aside their differences and calling a truce to form the front-ranks of the protesters in Tahrir. As one leader of Ahlawy said “Our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back. This was a police state. Our role started earlier than the revolution.” After the revolution, the police, have been conspicuous by the negligence of security in football stadiums, letting the specter of violence raise its ugly head more often than not. And amid all the polarized politics in Egypt, where the power and government control have been cracking down on dissent, the Ultras play an increasingly rare role – defiantly standing up to authority. As the tragic events that happened in the past four years, make all that too clear, football in Egypt is much more than just a game.