On 1 February 2012, an Egyptian league match was scheduled to take place between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry at the Port Said Stadium in north east Egypt. Prior to kickoff, the arena – typical of most Egyptian football venues – was filled with fans, flags and banners. But what happened over and after the next 90 minutes, was atypical of everything football was supposed to represent. It sent shockwaves throughout Egypt and beyond, leaving behind an unmovable black mark on Egpytian football.
The scoreboard displayed a 3-1 win for Al-Masry but the scoreline wouldn’t tell you about the Al-Masry fans who invaded the pitch during halftime and after each of their team’s three goals. The scoreline wouldn’t tell you about the carnage that followed the final whistle. Police watched as silent spectators as thousands of Al-Masry fans charged onto Al-Ahly fans in the stands and on the pitch – in the ensuing violence, at least 79 people were killed and more than 1000 were injured.
I took to Facebook the moment news trickled out, lashing out against hooliganism in football. It appeared that most people agreed with me. But it was only later that I realised that the tragedy had as much to do with football as Johannesburg had to do with Spain winning the World Cup. Football provided the setting, but the script had been written elsewhere, by someone with a political agenda. You only had to witness the police, who did not intervene or open the gates to let people out, to suspect an agenda.
When the Arab Spring revolution broke out in Egypt, football was a small but quite significant part of the equation. Nothing unites and divides Egyptians like football. It was into football that many youths channelled their energies prior to the revolution. When there is no vibrant political scene, sectors like sport often step up as an alternative for the masses to express themselves. Often it doesn’t stop at expressing themselves; they trespass various power faultlines because football’s reach is not limited by boundaries. Die-hard ultras of Cairo’s two famous clubs – eternal rivals Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek – took this to a whole new dimension with their involvement in the Arab Spring revolutions. They have come to be recognised as “one of Egypt’s largest civic groups.” These are young people with plenty of spirit and when a cause came up in front of them, they jumped at the chance. When police attacked protesters in February 2011, the ultras were at the forefront, defending the people against the brute force of the state. Rival fans put aside differences to unite in the face of the oppressor.
That is football’s power to unite. It is this very power that allegedly ruffled the feathers of Egypt’s military higher-ups so much that they had to conspire against the ultras, resulting in the Port Said stadium tragedy. It was seen as way of gaining revenge for what happened during the Arab Spring clashes. This may sound like a typical conspiracy theory but this has had most people subscribing to it. The political standing of the ultras has risen so much that such theories find no problem in gaining validity.
The Port Said disaster did not only affect fans. Al-Ahly players like Emad Moteab, Mohammed Barakat and the legendary Mohammed Aboutrika immediately announced their retirement. Their Portuguese coach Manuel Jose reported seeing fans die in the locker room. Players of Al-Masry accused the police force of inactivity.
It was the first time that football in Egypt came to be associated with an event of such tragic magnitude. Tragic as it was, it was heartening to see the Ultras’ reaction. They came together to set up committees to demand justice for the victims and to support their families. They protested week in and week out at the lack of progress in the judicial process. The Egyptian League had to be indefinitely postponed as the fans demanded that justice should come before football.
In the two years since February 2011, a lot has changed in Egypt and football has had to play a part in it, inevitably becoming intertwined with a political game that doesn’t seem to end anywhere in the near future.