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Air Defence Stadium disaster: Another Egyptian football ground becomes a graveyard
Egypt has now mourned the loss of more than 90 fans, with 22 of those falling in the Air Defence Stadium disaster that occurred on Sunday, February 8. KingFut.com Local Scene Correspondent Youssef Wael reports on the events of the latest tragedy.
Ever since it kicked off in September, the 2014/2015 Egyptian Premier League season showed signs that it was going to be a great campaign, a step in the right direction for Egyptian football. The first half of the season saw many unexpected results and the majority of clubs were playing great football; unfortunately, it was played without fans, again. Fans have not been present on a regular basis in Egyptian football since the 72 fans lost their lives when Al Ahly visited Al Masry at the Port Said Stadium in 2012.
The Egyptian Premier League’s top-four race was on fire this season. Champions Al Ahly were struggling to find their form, while on the other hand, arch rivals Zamalek almost looked invincible – having lost just one of 20 games. Sides like ENPPI and Wadi Degla were in great form, with the former mounting a genuine title challenge. In fact, the Petroleum-based outfit topped the Egyptian Premier League before the Whites snatched the ascendancy.
ENPPI had just defeated Al Ahly when they were set to face Zamalek in a game between first and second; however, more importantly, it was the first Egyptian Premier League matchday with fans since the agonizing events of Port Said in 2012. Being a side with relatively no fans, it was just another game for ENPPI – but on the other hand, approximately 25 million Zamalek fans found the news ecstatic. Finally, the long wait had come to an end; the Ultras White Knights (UWK) – Zamalek’s influential yet notorious ultras group, were returning to the Curva Sud accompanied by other Whites fans.
Touching banner from the Ittihad fans in the El-Gouna game. "Tell me, what is good in life when I can't see you?". pic.twitter.com/PtWl9ytTee
— KingFut.com (@King_Fut) February 5, 2015
Zamalek president Mortada Mansour and the UWK have been in conflict ever since Mansour came to the presidential hotseat in early 2014. The conflict resulted in the arrest of some Ultras members and their families, after the controversial lawyer survived a reported attempted assassination. This wasn’t the first time the UWK have been in conflict with their club president, having despised former president Mamdouh Abbas, whose security guards shot group member Amr Hussein in the chest, thus ending his life.
Weeks before the match with ENPPI, Mortada decided to make a truce with the group for the first time since he took charge of the club earlier in 2014. He even allowed the fans to attend the team’s training session before the Cairo derby against Al Ahly. Beautiful scenes were present in the training ground at Helmy Zamoura, as both parties appeared to have put their problems behind them.
With days left until the decisive match against ENPPI, Mortada Mansour issued 10,000 tickets for the fans. Mortada had bought 6,000 of those tickets and gifted them as invitations, leaving other fans like the UWK, who have a fan base of over 30,000, with only 4,000 tickets available. However, approximately two days before the game, Mansour told several media outlets that Zamalek fans could enter the game for free.
On the day of the match the group headed to the 35,000-seater Air Defence Stadium, five hours before the match. The main gate was closed, so the supporters had to go to another gate, protected by numerous police and army officers in order to ensure safe proceedings into the stadium. The main issue was that the tunnel between the entrance gate and the match had a steel cage that was 4 to 6 meters wide; the first time ever that police forces used such method in controlling and organizing the crowd in a football match in Egypt.
The number of White Knights were between 20 to 30 thousand, some of them without tickets, assuming that Mansour’s promise was in place. The frontline of supporters were being frisked by security forces before entering the stadium, people in the back started pushing forward, and the front lines were being pushed backwards by the police forces. One member of the Ultras group situated at the front lit a flare and started waving it in front of the police, sparking complete anarchy. Pellets and tear gas was shot at the fans in the narrow tunnel. Due to the huge numbers located in the extremely tight cage-esque tunnel, the tear gas grenades were falling on people’s heads. Everyone started panicking and running for their lives, many couldn’t save themselves as they suffocated from the gas while others died due to a stampede.
On the other side, the UWK were falling dead or running for safety as the number of causalities kept rising by the minute; first there were five, then the number was 16 until it reached the official death toll of 22. Almost thirty young Egyptians aged between 17 and 21 died due to the chaotic situation; the youngest victim was a 14-year-old girl, Hala Habashy.
— KingFut.com (@King_Fut) February 10, 2015
Once things started to cool down about an hour before the match, the fans were all over the place. Some fans stopped the team bus to tell the players what had happened, asking them to forfeit the match in honor of the fallen. The others were regrouping to count the number of missing or dead, when police forces started attacking once again. With only 30 minutes left until kick-off, an armed vehicle transported the players to the ground.
All the players set foot on the field and finished the game which eventually ended 1-1, except for Omar Gaber. The 23-year-old cemented his place in Zamalek fans’ hearts after refusing to play. As a ‘consequence’ for his action, Mansour reportedly decided to terminate his recent contract extension. This hardly matters for Omar, however, who says he won’t play for Zamalek again.
Egypt reacted differently to the tragic incident; some blaming the Ultras, others blaming Mortada and the police. Almost everyone in the Egyptian football society was outraged and furious.
Forgetting the divide
Al Ahly and Zamalek are two giant entities in Egypt. With over 50 million and 25 million fans respectively, their games usually involve insults and violence – just like any derby. However, in this case the Reds were the ones who heavily backed their rivals, just like what the latter did following the events in Port Said.
The Red Devils’ official channel was the only TV outlet in the country that mourned the incident, the club itself announced a state of mourning, and Al Ahly star man Walid Soliman cancelled his engagement party midway through, stating that he “can’t celebrate while people are dying.”
Spanish manager Carlos Garrido expressed his misery by saying: “I’m sad and in pain because I live in Egypt. What happened yesterday is a catastrophe that occurred due to bad organisation. Football fans were starting to regain their normal routines since the Port Said incident.”
In the end, football stadiums have went from carnivals and passion strongholds, to places where people have lost their loved ones. As Egypt and Al Ahly legend Wael Gomaa recently described it:
“Our football stadiums have evolved from a carnivalesque atmosphere to graveyards where the fans are buried.”