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Amid the carnage in Egypt, the games begin
Today is the day football returns to Egypt. The excitement should be mounting, nerves crackling. There is no assigned seating, so fans should be flocking to the country’s stadiums four or five hours before kick-off, the well-heeled heading to the first and second-class areas, where they can sit, and the masses standing in third class, behind the goals. They should be lighting flares and singing songs and unfurling banners. They should be filled with the naive, unpunctured dreams of the new campaign.
They are not. When — if — the first round of games start this afternoon, they will do so against a backdrop of empty stands. There has been no domestic football in Egypt for a year and a day, since 72 Al-Ahly fans were killed in the Port Said massacre. It has returned now only because the Egyptian Football Association — with the blessing of the army — have implemented a series of drastic measures to ensure there can be no repeat.
No fans allowed into stadiums; the league divided in two, conveniently keeping Al-Ahly away from any cities — such as Suez and Ismailia — that might be considered potential flashpoints; Al-Masry, the club from Port Said, excluded altogether.
Still, though, the body count rises. To the 72 victims of Port Said, add the 21 Masry fans sentenced to death for their part in the slaughter. A further 54 defendants, including nine police officers, may receive the same verdict on March 9. Thirty-three more were killed in riots in Port Said that followed the initial verdicts. The blood continues to flow. Football is something of an afterthought.
“This is just something to get it going again,” says Bob Bradley, the Egypt and former United States coach. “In the long run, though, where the game goes from here? That’s the big question.”
Measured, considered, the shaven-headed 54-year-old has been in place for a little over a year. He discusses the political and social turmoil enveloping the country with the nuance and expertise of a veteran foreign correspondent; he has a handle on all of the factions and splinter groups and vested interests, testament to his decision to throw himself into his new role with gusto.
He lives not in one of the exclusive gated communities on Cairo’s outskirts, but in Zamalek, in its heart; it is upmarket, yes, but it is also just a 20-minute walk from Tahrir Square. Bradley gets Egypt, as much as anyone can. He knows that the problems the aftermath of Port Said gave him pale in comparison to the matter of plotting a future for football here.
“From my point of view, Port Said and all that has followed has created different challenges,” he says, diplomatically. “We have had to do a lot more training camps. We have had to play outside Egypt, whenever and wherever we can get a game. We went to Doha, to Dubai, to Khartoum, to Tripoli, in Lebanon. Yes, it has made our job more difficult. But the bigger issue is over the future of football here, and that is tied to the future of the country.”
That is the crux of it. That football and politics are one and the same here is daubed on Tahrir’s walls, where among the slogans demanding freedom and the Banksy-esque images of policemen being lined up to be shot is a mural of Mohamed Abou-Treika, Ahly’s beating heart and, to many, Egypt’s finest ever player. A beard has been added — a nod to his piety — but it is unmistakeably him, a footballer cast as an icon to a revolution.
Street traders sell a range of balaclavas adorned with the Ahly badge alongside the masks used by protesters to counteract the effects of teargas.
Football and politics, Ahly and revolution: the line melted away long ago, a fact that is down, in no small part, to Ultras Ahlawy, the group that comprises Ahly’s most devoted fans.
“Ahlawy was not set up for violence,” explains one of the group’s leaders, Hossam, speaking under a pseudonym. He is well educated, a white-collar professional. His English is fluent; he is slight of frame, kind and courteous. He does not fit the stereotype. “The way clubs were supported here before was very ordered. You were not even allowed to swear. We wanted passion, we wanted to do the choreographed displays you see in the rest of the world.
“But because we did not simply let the police beat us, the [deposed] Mubarak regime saw us as a threat. That was how Egypt was then. The police attacked you, and you ran away. We changed that. We sang songs insulting them, insulting Mubarak. They beat us, they arrested us, they tortured us, and we fought back. When the revolution came, we were the only group who had experience of fighting the police, who knew how to manoeuvre.”
Hossam insists that while Ahlawy were in Tahrir on January 25, 2011, and in the days of rage that followed, they were just one of a number of groups leading the fight; others maintain that the ultras, battle-hardened, organised, were central to bringing an end to Mubarak’s cruel, corrupt tyranny.
They paid, they believe, a heavy price for their victory. “There are so many question marks from what happened in Port Said,” says Hossam. Many of the 72 victims were members of the group. “Why was nobody searched? Why did the police not intervene? Why did they turn out the lights in the stadium, why was the door locked to prevent our fans escaping? We believe the police knew this would happen. We believe they allowed it to happen as revenge.”
Ahlawy, again, have fought back. They worked tirelessly with the prosecutor’s office to bring a case; they marched and protested in the weeks and months before the trial to remind the authorities that there could be no whitewash. Days before the verdict was announced, they shut down Cairo’s stock exchange, its Metro rail network, and the 6th October Bridge, the city’s main thoroughfare, under the slogan: “Justice or Chaos.”
“We wanted to remind them what would happen if they tried to screw our martyrs, like they screwed the thousands of others who died for the revolution,” says Hossam, a hint of anger in his voice. “We know the Masry fans were just a tool. The authorities must be punished too.”
It comes as a surprise when Hossam says he is looking forward to the new season, and to the day when fans are allowed to watch their heroes once more. First, though, there are other battles to fight.
Rory Smith is a football reporter for The Times, based in London, covering everything from former Bolton players in Iran to long-forgotten coaching pioneers. His work has appeared in the Telegraph, the Independent, FourFourTwo, the Blizzard, and now on King Fut.
This article was originally published in The Times; reproduced on King Fut with the kind permission of The Times.