Players say the return of spectators will bring life back to the game
Egypt football fans expectant as stadiums open doors to public after three years
Egyptian football fans are eagerly readying themselves to return to the stands on September 17 after a three-year hiatus.
The Egyptian Premier League match in Alexandria between home team Al Ittihad and Cairo’s Entag El Harby comes as cabinet spokesman Sharaf Sultan confirmed Interior Ministry approval for a plan to allow a limited number of pre-screened fans to attend selected domestic matches this season — which began on July 31.
“This is a careful process that is not being done randomly,” said Karam Kurdi, a board member of the Egyptian Football Association. "The fans who will attend the matches are going to be on a list of vetted names presented by the clubs to the security services.”
Mr Kurdi explained that fan cards will be issued only to ticket subscribers without a criminal record and who have never been flagged for rioting at matches.
Egypt’s government imposed its first ban on football audiences in February 2012 after a riot broke out inside Port Said stadium between the home team Al Masry and the reigning league champions Al Ahly, killing 73 of Al Ahly's supporters.
A return to normal play was due to start in 2015 but the ban was reimposed after 22 fans died in a stampede at the 30,000-capacity Air Defense stadium in suburban Cairo during a match between Zamalek and city rivals ENPPI.
Only 5,000 spectators were allowed to purchase tickets for that match, leading to a riot by Zamalek "ultras", as diehard club supporters are known, desperate to see their team play live.
“The return of the masses to games will not be done randomly as in previous years, which led to catastrophic incidents,” said Mr Kurdi.
New regulations will not allow the use of fireworks or the shouting of slogans deemed inflammatory by authorities, he said.
Players say the return of spectators to stadiums will bring life back to the game in Egypt.
“Of course, we play better games when the stadiums are full and have enthusiastic audiences,” said Hosni Abed Rabbo, a 34-year-old defensive midfielder for Ismaily Sporting Club. “Allowing the fans back means a return to the spirit of football.”
But some fans are not convinced they will return to the stadium.
"As the game ended, the fans of the Port Said club went down to the pitch and attacked us with firecrackers and bottles. And the police did nothing to stop them,” said Youssef Abdul Aziz, 28, recalling the tragic day at Port Said stadium. “This is how the whole stadium was set on fire.”
“I succeeded in escaping from a back gate, but I lost ten friends that day,” said Mr Abdul Aziz, who was 22 at the time and a member of the Al Ahly ultras — who took to chanting anti-police slogans during the tumultuous revolts against former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi.
Under pressure from club management and security bodies, both Al Ahly and cross-town rivals Zamalek ultras have were disbanded.
"I have lost my passion," lamented Mr Abdul Aziz. "[Now] the audience will be limited to commercial sponsors of the clubs and their patrons, not the real fans — the ultras who love the players and the sport of football in Egypt.”
Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies believes the impetus decision to re-open stadiums to fans comes from the desire of club owners to monetise their investment.
“You have investors wanting to make money out of the Egyptian League which necessarily requires the presence of fans,” said Mr Akl. “It’s a complex network of interests that make up the industry of football and at this moment this matrix includes elements in the government who see the potential for sports as a driver of economic growth.”
Mr Akl believes that the disbanding of most ultras groups associated with inter-team violence has allowed the security forces to permit the return of spectators to the stadiums.
"Last September’s World Cup pre-qualifying game against Uganda witnessed the attendance of sixty thousand fans in Alexandria,” said Mr Akl. “The Egyptian security was able to secure that number — so the cap of five thousand is a framework to start off with as money returns to the football sector in Egypt."