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Al-Ahly’s checkered journey to Champions League glory
~Article co-authored by Aaron Ross and Adam Moustafa~
With its victory over the reigning holders Esperance Sportive of Tunisia in the African Champions League final Saturday night, Al-Ahly capped off the most tumultuous period in its 105-year history in a blaze of glory. The championship, courtesy of an impressive 2-1 win in Tunis’ Rades Stadium, cemented the Cairo giant’s status as the preeminent force in African football with a record seven continental crowns to its name.
Amid the turbulent aftermath of the Port Said stadium disaster in February—one comprising conflagrations between Ahly’s hard-core supporters and security forces; the ongoing suspension of Egypt’s domestic league; a harrowing away trip to Mali in the midst of that country’s April coup d’état; and a series of recent assaults on club facilities by the team’s own fans—Ahly’s ascent to the top of African football for the first time since 2008 has to rank among the storied club’s most impressive feats.
But even as this latest victory triggered the predictable frenzy of fireworks and honking late into the night in Cairo, it will forever be viewed through the prism of what happened on a brisk winter evening in another stadium some 3,000 kilometers away from the scene of Saturday night’s triumph in the Egyptian coastal city of Port Said.
The trophy has arrived back in Cairo, but the full meaning of the win is unclear. Beneath Ahly’s rightful claims to continental dominance lie unaddressed questions for Ahly and Egyptian football as a whole that both will find themselves wrestling with in the weeks and months to come.
In the days before Ahly’s Feb. 1 match against Al Masry of Port Said, rumors circulated in the media and among Ahly’s hard-core fans, the Ultras Ahlawy, of impending trouble. The fans of the two clubs—one the royalty of Egyptian football, the other well beyond from the Cairo limelight—had a history of bad blood. Threats of violence against any Ahly fan who dared show his face in Port Said had been reported in the press and on social media sites. In fact, senior members of Ultras Ahlawy barred younger members—some as young as 12 or 13—from attending.
Their fears proved well-founded. Inside Port Said Stadium, the two sets of fans exchanged taunts, as groups of Masry supporters repeatedly attempted to invade the away section, where they were repelled by Ahlawy’s traveling contingent of more than 1,000.
But there was to be no defense against what transpired after the final whistle. A sea of spectators from the home sections—some Masry fans, others believed to be hired thugs—streamed out of the terraces, chasing Ahly’s players into the stadium’s tunnels before continuing on into the away terraces. Wielding knives, sticks loaded with nails, and tasers, the thugs methodically massacred Ahly fans. Others died trapped against the stadium gates as they tried to escape. By the time the thugs had vanished into the Port Said night, 72 lay dead.
As this went on, the ordinarily heavy-handed riot police who ring the pitch at all Egyptian matches did not so much as lift a finger to prevent the assault. Meanwhile, the lights cut out about five minutes into the attack, enshrouding the victims in darkness as the assailants navigated the stands with the neon-green light sticks with which they had passed through security. Beneath the stands, the wounded streamed into the Ahly locker room, suddenly transformed into a makeshift hospital. Ahly star Mohamed Abou-Treika cradled the head of one young fan as he took his final breaths. “Captain, I’ve spent my life dying to meet you,” he reportedly told Abou-Treika. “And now that I’ve met you, I know it is my time to die.”
As fellow Ahlawys and their allies awaited the return of the dead and wounded at Cairo’s Ramses Station, the consensus was that the ruling military and the police had been complicit in the carnage—that the shocking violence was payback for the Ultras’ prominent role in the 2011 revolution and frequent clashes with security forces. The thousands who streamed into the station into the wee hours of the night vowed to take vengeance. They chanted with uncontained rage: “We will secure their rights or die like them!”
In the ensuing days, clashes between the Ultras and security forces once again turned violent near the Interior Ministry. By the time the dust had settled, at least another dozen young men had died.
The fans involved in the clashes were members of Ultras Ahlawy, a hard-core fan group founded in 2007 to restore some of the passion to the stadium terraces that younger fans felt was lacking. The irreverent Ultras compiled a long list of enemies: the police with whom they regularly battled inside and outside the stadiums, the Mubarak regime against whom they were practically alone in publicly challenging, and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), which they viewed as a corrupt arm of the regime.
Those antagonisms hardened during the revolution of 2011, when Ultras groups, including Ahlawy and rivals Ultras White Knights of their archrival Zamalek, formed the vanguard of the resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s shock troops on the front lines of the battles that raged in Tahrir Square. In the clashes that ensued later that year against the police and military forces in downtown Cairo, the Ultras once again found themselves on the front lines.
But the Ultras’s sense of grievance had never been so raw as in the aftermath of Port Said. As one Ahlawy leader explained, it was the first time that many of the young men who comprise the group’s ranks had ever experienced the death of someone so close to them.
From that point on, the quest for justice became the Ultras’ raison d’être. The organization and youthful energy that the group had once devoted to supporting Ahly was now channeled toward ensuring justice for fallen comrades. In rallies and marches and sit-ins throughout Cairo—in front of the Attorney General’s office, the Parliament, EFA headquarters—they echoed the cries that had first rung out in Ramses Station that February night.
Despite their nominal designation as football fans, their clearest demand was communicated in a March rally in front of EFA headquarters. “Ma feesh kora!” they chanted. They would countenance no domestic football, they insisted, until they had, as they commonly put it, “restored the rights of the martyrs.”
The attorney general took a first step toward answering their demands in late March with the indictment of 75 individuals, including nine police officers, in connection with the events in Port Said. The trial, which has proceeded in fits and starts, is still ongoing.
The Ultras accepted Ahly’s participation in the African Champions League, but the resumption of the domestic league remains a red line so long as justice had not been delivered to the victims of Port Said. In response to repeated announcements of its intention to resume the league by the EFA, the Ultras escalated their peaceful protests, storming Ahly facilities on at least three occasions, EFA headquarters, and television studios on Cairo’s outskirts.
With just over a week to go before the league’s scheduled September 17 resumption, Ahlawy threatened to storm Alexandria’s Borg El Arab Stadium, home to the Super Cup match, the traditional curtain raiser for the season, between Ahly and ENPPI. The threatened storming did not come to pass, but the season was—not coincidentally, it would appear—postponed by a month. Amid renewed threats to attack stadiums were the league to resume before its conditions—namely, justice in the Port Said trial—had been satisfied, the EFA once again postponed—this time indefinitely—the new October 17 start date.
Even as they have supported Ahly throughout its Champions League run, the Ultras’ feelings toward the club remain ambivalent at best. One of their core demands is the resignation of club president Hassam Hamdy, and they have repeatedly accused the players and management of failing to show respect for the Port Said victims. After storming Ahly training facilities for the first time in July, the Ahlawy Facebook page accused the players of shedding “crocodile tears” for the martyrs.
The Cairo giants are no strangers to continental success, going into the 2012 CAF Champions League with an African-record of six previous titles to their name, but with the suspension of domestic football since Port Said, reclaiming the thrown as ‘Kings of Africa’ this year seemed a fantasy at most. After comfortably eliminating Ethiopian Coffee from the Round of 32, Al-Ahly quickly had their backs against the ropes when Malian champions Stade Malien struck first blood in the two-legged tie; winning 1-0 in Bamako. The Malian misery only just began after the final whistle was blown. Ahly’s scheduled flight home was initially delayed due to bad weather, but the team would never get on that flight. Mali has been in turmoil since March, when a group of soldiers toppled the country’s democratically elected president. The turmoil reignited during Ahly’s stay and the airport was closed as a result; the weather preventing their return home was now the raining of shells, following an attempted counter-coup in the country. The Egyptian champions were stranded.
With Portuguese manager Manuel José focused on keeping his team fit for the return leg in Cairo, Ahly were forced to train at their hotel over the sound of distant gunshots. The team’s frustrations grew as days passed in Bamako; however, players like Abou-Treika were treated like royalty among the locals. They gracefully wore Malian traditional clothing around the hotel, one of the many gifts received from the locals. Malians would watch Al-Ahly train in the parking lot until they were eventually airlifted by an Egyptian military plane.
During the postponed 2nd leg of the Round of 16 clash, Ahly quickly found themselves on the verge of an early exit from Africa’s premiere competition – Stade Malian score first in Egypt. The Egyptian champions were down 2-0 on aggregate after the first half, needing 3 unresponded goals to progress. Along came the magician, Mohamed Abou-Treika. The legendary Pharaoh scored a second-half hat-trick – with the third goal coming in the 87th minute – to seal the Red Devils’ progression to the Group Stages.
Al-Ahly’s miserable luck was extended after being drawn in the ‘Group of Death’ with powerhouses TP Mazembe, Berekum Chelsea (home of the competition’s top scorer, Emmanuel Clottey) and rivals, Zamalek. Rubbing salt in the wound, Manuel Jose stepped down as Al-Ahly coach due to the difficult situation in Egypt, claiming, “No one cares about football. Everyone is talking about politics.” After re-appointing Hossam Al-Badry – who was often criticized for ‘lacking the experience to deal with high-profile names’ – the Egyptians champions managed to finish top of their group, after defeating each opponent behind closed doors at the Military Academy Stadium in Cairo; however, never winning a match on the road. Despite their win over fierce rivals Zamalek, Al-Ahly icon Mohamed Barakat was far from impressed, labelling the match as “the worst Cairo derby ever”, due to the eerie atmosphere left by the fans’ absence.
Even with all the tensions between the two, the Ultras accepted Ahly’s participation in the Champions League, even going so far as to intervene en masse before the second leg of the semi-final in Cairo to ensure opponent Sunshine Stars’ safe passage to the stadium. (Players from other Egyptian clubs, protesting the continued suspension of the league, had amassed outside Sunshine Stars’ hotel in an apparent attempt to prevent the game from proceeding and force Ahly’s disqualification from the tournament.) Al-Ahly played both legs without their top scorer Abou-Treika – who was banned and heavily fined by the club for refusing to take part in the controversial Super Cup (siding with the Ultras) weeks before – but progressed to the Champions League final after edging past the Nigerians 4-3 on aggregate.
Ahly played in-front of around 20,000 fans in Cairo, for the first time since the Port Said disaster, during the 1st leg of the CAF Champions League final. The Ultras Ahlawy did not attend the match, but they still made it a priority to enter the Borg El-Arab stadium prior to kick-off to display a ‘tifo’, organizing numerous placards in the stands to leave the sentence “74 (martyrs) in paradise” in reference to their comrades killed in Port Said.
Al-Ahly were the dominate team over both legs, especially in Tunisia, where they played like men possessed to dethrone the reigning Champions with a 2-1 victory at Esperance. Hossam Al-Badry’s first away win in the competition gifted the Egyptians their 7th Champions League title, qualifying them for December’s FIFA Club World Cup. Having played just 1 competitive game outside the pan-African competition since February, Al-Badry labelled this trophy as Ahly’s best ever, “I believe that this title will remain Ahly’s greatest and most precious for several years because of the difficulties we’ve been facing all season.” Al-Ahly maestro Abdallah El-Said commented after the match, ”We wanted this trophy very badly, so we could offer it up to the souls and the families of the Port Said martyrs.”
So while Ahly’s Champions League victory has put a spring in the step of its ever-faithful loyalists, the Ultras are unlikely to give any ground on their key demands. The EFA, which for its part has denied that the Ultras’ threats have factored into the previous postponements, has signalled that it hopes to resume the league next month. Should it finally follow through on those plans, a new confrontation could well await.
Aaron is a freelance journalist based in Cairo who writes about politics, sports and business in post-Mubarak Egypt. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, The Nation, Egypt Independent and Global Post. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronross6.