Supporters of Al Ahly and Al Masry get to attend Egyptian Supercup match in Al Ain
Egyptian football fans estranged by violence will finally meet in the UAE
The number 74 looms large over Egyptian football. It's on Al Ahly sporting club's sign on an island in the Nile and on black T-shirts around Egypt, the numerals filled in with the names of football fans who died six years ago in one of the most violent instances of Egypt’s revolution and of football worldwide.
It started after a game between Al Ahly, the powerhouse of Egyptian football, and Al Masry from the Suez Canal city of Port Said. As the final whistle blew, fans stormed the field. Players and fans tried to escape, but they found some gates locked shut and 74 died in stampedes or from blunt trauma. Revolutionaries thought it was orchestrated by the state, others said it was negligence.
Following the disaster, authorities banned spectators from all Egyptian league matches across the country. On Friday, those same two teams will play in front of fans for the first time since that tragic night in 2012. But it will not be in Egypt. Instead the Egyptian Supercup, played between the winners of the Egypt Cup and the Egyptian Premier League, will be decided at Hazza bin Zayed stadium in Al Ain, UAE.
Beyond the loss of life, the effects of the violence — which many in Egypt called a massacre — carried on into Egyptian football. Security decisions made it difficult to organise games. Empty stands affected television viewership. Disconnected from their fan base, Egyptian players dipped in performance level.
“We knew each other and knew a lot about each other. We’re a close community. If you don’t know someone personally, you know their face,” said Hicham El Feky, a lifelong Ahly fan who became brand manager at the club and designed the T-shirt commemorating the victims. “We lost a lot of our friends, and a lot of things were broken during that match, unfortunately. Many people lost their interest in football. It became difficult to know which teams were popular or not.”
Al Ahly and Al Masry last met in November, when Al Ahly won 2-0. But this is the first time they will play each other in front of fans.
The last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s regime was a boom time for Egyptian football, with the advent of satellite television with dedicated channels, investment from the government and international victories for Egyptian teams. Several defeats,most notably to Algeria in 2009, left fans disillusioned and then came the 2011 revolution and Port Said.
“Several events add up to this sort of breakup of this boom,” said Carl Rommel, an anthropologist who studies Egyptian football. “The massacre is the most important of these events.”
Mohamed El Erian is an Al Masry fan because of its roots in Egyptian nationalism and Port Said. The club was founded after Egypt’s 1919 revolution against the British, and its green kit symbolises the flag of that period. When Port Said was evacuated during the wars with Israel, Al Masry club games became a gathering point for the displaced, he said.
It is for that reason that merely playing before a crowd of fans is not enough for Mr El Erian.
“We will go back to our stadium in Port Said. It’s a matter of time and we believe in this — it’s our right. Even if there are some people that committed a mistake, we cannot judge all people,” he said.
Mr Rommel is not so sure. “I think it's likely that fans will return but I also have a feeling that the authorities are quite happy not allowing full stadiums,” he said.
Violence still breaks out at football matches and the authorities come down hard. A decision to ease the ban on supporters in stadiums was reversed almost immediately in February 2015, when police fired birdshot and tear gas into fans at a match between Zamalek and ENNPI in Cairo and 22 were killed. Last July, police took 236 fans into custody, claiming they had vandalised a stadium in Alexandria. More than 200, many of them hardcore fans known as Ultras, were released in December.
Ultras have a contentious relationship with the police and club leadership, and in 2015 they were banned by an Egyptian court. Graffiti, saying “ACAB”, an abbreviation for a profane anti-police slogan, and “football is for the fans” is among the most common forms of vandalism in Cairo, and is usually understood to be the work of Ultras.
International leagues require clubs to allow audiences into games, so fans have been returning slowly. But those matches have not been open to the general public, only to club delegations. There are still no fans allowed at domestic football matches.
The success of the Egyptian national team, led by superstar Mohamed Salah — recently-crowned African Player of the Year and currently top scorer in the English premiership with Liverpool — to their first time World Cup since 1990, has begun to lift football out of the doldrums. But Mr Rommel does not believe the game will regain the heights of its popularity in Egypt in the mid-2000s.
The absence of cheering supporters affects performance and memories of the revolution are long. On the other hand, Mr Rommel points out that fans and players who are around the 20 mark now were only 13 at the time of the revolution, and they may not associate football so closely with the massacre.
“Maybe we shouldn’t over-emphasise these revolutionary events of five, six years ago,” he said.
About 3,600 tickets for Friday's match have been sold in Egypt, according to Presentation Sports, the company responsible for ticketing. Abu Dhabi police have mobilised 15 security forces including anti-riot, special forces, air ambulance and canine units, and called on fans to "commit to civilised cheering and to co-operate with police forces to maintain public security."
Fans like Mr Feky, who will attend the match in Al Ain, hope that the game is a precursor to watching their team play at home again. Mr El Erian, who will see his team play in an international fixture next month, has more modest hopes for the Supercup.
“We’re looking forward to a good match and in good faith, to have a good relationship between the fans and players.”