“This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. Is life this cheap?”
The chilling words of Al Ahly legend Mohamed Aboutrika described exactly what people witnessed at the Port Said Stadium on 1 February 2012 when Al Ahly players and fans were outnumbered and attacked by Al Masry ultras. The match ended 3-1 in favour of Al-Masry but the scoreline did not matter after 74 people were killed following the final whistle.
A black day for football
In a shocking turn of events, fans from the home side Al-Masry invaded the pitch and chased the Al Ahly players who sprinted towards the dressing rooms. The ground soon descended into chaos as rival fans clashed on the pitch with riot police seemingly unable to stop the tide of fans rushing onto the pitch.
As the players fled the pitch, they were targets for fans who threw flares and bottles. A few ultras had also targeted the away fans with projectiles and fireworks launched from the another section of the stadium; all of it caught on camera as Al-Masry scored – the away fans’ plight completely overlooked as the players and fans celebrated.
Manuel Jose de Jesus, the Al Ahly coach who led the club to six Egyptian Premier League titles and a memorable African treble, was punched and kicked by the fans who invaded the pitch. It was only due to the fact that he was held in high regard for his contribution to Egyptian football that he escaped with his life.
However, other fans were not so lucky. Police inside the stadium and on the pitch, in complete riot gear, simply stood by and watched as fans streamed on to the pitch. In the stands, too, they did nothing to quell the surge of fans heading towards the Al Ahly supporters.
To make matters worse, Al-Masry fans were armed. While some had rocks and stones on them, others carried knives and makeshift clubs. The scenes that followed made the minor scuffles earlier in the game look like a fight between toddlers.
A number of fans were found dead with either stab wounds or blows to the head. A few fans had been thrown to the ground from the upper tier. Those fans who tried to escape found some of the gates locked, leading to a bottleneck and many died in the stampede as fans tried to escape.
It was the deadliest riot at a football stadium in more than a decade.
This incident came soon after a turbulent time in Egypt – just a year after pro-Mubarak counter-revolutionaries had stormed Tahrir Square and sparked the Egyptian Revolution. 846 people had been killed and over 6,000 injured when people demonstrating against then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak clashed with security forces. The massacre at the Port Said Stadium was seen as a result of both law enforcement and stadium security working together with the interim military government.
“Politics had corrupted football in Egypt.” – Former coach Manuel Jose
Other matches scheduled to be played on that day were cancelled. Zamalek, Al-Ahly’s arch rivals in the same neighbourhood, had their match against Ismaili cancelled and their fans stood in solidarity with those worried about the fate of their loved ones who had travelled to the game in Port Said.
Troops were deployed on the streets of Port Said to curb any violence that threatened to spill over from the stadium. Roads in and out of the city were also blocked and secured. Around 500 people in Suez, about 150 km away, protested in front of the main police headquarters against what they perceived to be gross police negligence.
Fans who survived claimed security personnel did not conduct the usual body searches at stadium entrances – definitive proof that the weapons used inside the stadium were allowed to be smuggled in. Another report claimed that the gates near the away section were welded shut, practically locking the Al-Ahly supporters inside and left at the mercy of the unruly fans.
In all, over 70 defendants were charged in the killing of 74 Al-Ahly fans. Nine of the defendants were police officers. 21 death sentences were issued but after appeals, most of the defendants were sentenced to prison for periods varying from 5 to 15 years.
To top it off, Egyptian football came to a standstill for two years. The rest of the 2011/12 season was first suspended and then cancelled altogether with no time left to play the rest of the games before the Olympics. The 2012/13 season was never played after the events at Port Said.
As a result, the Egypt national team that had not qualified for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, suffered and failed to qualify for the 2013 and 2015 Africa Cup of Nations.