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When a Game of Football is Ruined by the Game of Politics
Rivalry is a very common notion in the world of football and Egypt is no exception. Egypt is a country where football has been played and watched for centuries. The Egyptian FA was established in the early 1920s and Egypt was one of the early FIFA member states. In Egypt football is not “just-a-game”, football is a religion, it’s what Egyptians turn to when things go sour elsewhere in their lives. It is no secret to anyone who knows Egypt that football is the opium of the Egyptian people.
Football rivalries in Egyptian football are plentiful, but none more bitter than the rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek, the two biggest clubs in Egypt from the capital city Cairo. Al Ahly, established in 1907, is the African club of the century, holder of a record 36 domestic league titles. Its trophy cabinet also includes 33 Egyptian cup titles and 14 African titles. Geographical rivalry – within Egypt – the clubs close to Al Ahly that also exist are mainly located in the Suez Canal area, namely Al-Ismailiy of Ismailia and Al Masry of Portsaid, who have developed a strong hatred towards Al Ahly over the years. Several, if not all of the Arab world’s footballing nations have at least one club named Al Ahly after the Egyptian giants.
Hooliganism and clashes between supporters of opposing teams in derby matches are frequent in football – it’s become a universal feature in the game. But what had happened in the city of Portsaid stadium on the evening of Wednesday 1st of February 2012, is beyond anything a rivalry in Egypt has ever witnessed. It was by far the greatest catastrophe in the history of Egyptian sports, shocking the country and, in turn, the whole world.
“We are fanatic supporters of our club; we are passionate about our football; our club above all, above anything!” one Al Ahly supporter said prior to the match. The legendary Bill Shankly once said that football is much more than a matter of life and death, and the Ultras Ahlawy say, “I give my life to Al Ahly and that would still be nothing, the day I stop supporting is the day I die!” That day has come and it shook the world. The death of more than 74 Egyptian souls in a football match. Their sin was that they loved football; their crime was that they supported their team!
The venue was Portsaid stadium. The match was Al Ahly versus Al Masry. Signs of provocation were apparent. Offensive banners were used. Chants filled with profanities were sung. Bottles were thrown and mini-rockets were lit. Although all that happened and was not odd to see in such a high profile match, certain other incidents should have drawn a cause of worry and concern. There were excessive fireworks before, during, and after the match on and off the pitch. Al Masry fans ran down to celebrate each goal with the players on the pitch; these were extraordinary signals that raised a big question mark! Where were the policemen when fans were on the pitch hugging the players in the middle of the 90 minute game? How and why did the referee continue the match let alone start it when rockets were fired on him and the players?
It was a historic display, Al Masry had played a brilliant second half, recording one of their finest victories ever against the best team in Egypt, coming from one goal down to win 3-1. No one could have predicted what was to come afterwards. A series of unfortunate events unfolded so quickly, yet the injuries and fatalities were dealt with so slowly.
When the final whistle was blown, an unprecedented pitch invasion took place, thousands of Al Masry fans stormed the pitch. They were hustling the Al Ahly team, trying to hit and bully the players. Al Ahly players were running around like crazy, they were running for their lives, trying to reach the changing rooms, their only chance of survival. Manuel Jose, Al Ahly’s coach, only survived because he was rescued by Al Masry’s Chairman, who helped the coach during his attack. Awful and very disturbing scenes hit Portsaid’s stadium, disgraceful to anyone related to the so-called beautiful game.
All these atrocities were being watched by millions live on TV. Part of the viewership was unfortunately the police officers who were in the stadium, supposedly on duty, but merely observing as the situation got worse. Yes, worse than the already outrageous state that was reached in the stadium. By that time, Al Masry fans had not only invaded the pitch but were running towards Al Ahly fans in the stands. Away team fans in Egypt are always protected and their perimeter is generally surrounded by riot police, especially in big matches. Nevertheless what happened this time was a tragic act of dishonor that caused catastrophic consequences – they pulled back!
Al Masry “fans” running around with sticks, blades, clubs, knives and even guns attacked the defenseless Al Ahly supporters in their section of the stadium. It was a massacre, bloodshed in what should have been a football match. Young Al Ahly fans thought to be enjoying their mid-year vacation were murdered, over 74 of them in less than an hour…
A horrific scene, a disastrous sight in the city of Portsaid under the watchful eye of those who should have cared yet not an eye blinked. Can this be rivalry? Is this football hooliganism? The answer is NO; it was the game of politics ruining the game of football.
Politics and football have always been interlinked, football has been used by many governments across the world. In Egypt it has always been a common modus operandi for the past regime to distract the public opinion from the rotten political and economical mayhem they face every day. But this time those hardcore fans of Al Ahly played a significant role in contesting authorities both during and since Egypt’s January 25th revolution. In stadia and out on the streets, they were the most organized, the loudest and the most courageous of all calling for only one thing: “FREEDOM”.
The courageous Egyptian youth have been played, unknowingly, in a live horror show. Innocent souls tragically lost their lives as a result of this cheap tactic.
Although they were the most feared institution in Egypt, the riot police turned a blind eye. Just a month earlier, they were very capable of stopping a similar massacre from happening in Ghazl Al-Mahalla stadium during another Al Ahly match. Again, fans were targeting Ultras Ahlawy, but ”fortunately” the riot police decided to interfere and perform their duty.
However, in Portsaid the Egyptian FA took the decision to go on with the match in the most difficult of situations. Death threats and all the pre-match incidents were not good enough to cancel the match in order to deter such horrendous outcome. The match referee was given strict orders to play and finish the match. Under no circumstance should the referee’s whistle have been blown to start the match, let alone finish it.
Then came the final straw, appalling murders taking place live on national TV. Al Ahly players were crying, seeking help yet no help came. There was no water, no medical supplies, no protection for 2 long hours. Players changing room turned into a morgue where a number of fans die. One fan died in the arms of Abu Trika, Egypt’s football hero. His final words were “It was my dream to see you before I die, now that I did, I know I will die”.
It was a night that will never be forgotten and scarred in the hearts and minds of Egyptians for all the wrong reasons. Egyptians were killing Egyptians live on TV in front of the eyes of 80 million people yet authorities loathsomely chose not to intervene. They cruelly chose to watch until the “lesson” was over. Many are convinced they orchestrated this mayhem as retribution for the Ultras Ahlawy fans’ major role in January 25th revolution! It wasn’t until two hours after the mayhem began that the authorities intervened. Ambulances and two planes were sent, but it too late. Blood was everywhere, on their hands as much as on the seats of the stadium.
The football pitch became a political arena and the carnage that took place were the epitome of failure and corruption in a falling state trying to use any extreme desperate measures to halt a country whose people are on the verge of victory, or more precisely “FREEDOM”.
In memory of the 74 (or more). May your souls rest in peace. Justice will prevail. Your words will never be forgotten.
(يوم نصرة ليا عيد—- عمرى ماهكون بعيد—- ويوم مابطل اشجع—- هاكون ميت اكيد)
(Your victory is my happiness, I’ll never be far away, the day I stop supporting is the day I die)
This piece was written By Moustafa El Chiati (@MoustafaFC) and was originally published on (www.afootballreport.com) and (www.lovelyleftfoot.com) on March 14th 2012 to mark the 40th day of mourning for the victims of the Portsaid tragedy.