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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

TRAGEDY IN EGYPT - WHAT NEXT FOR AL-AHLY AND FOR EGYPTIAN FOOTBALL IN GENERAL?

Football has long been by far the most popular sport in Egypt, and it has equally been an outlet for the many frustrations of the country's citizens, as well as oft being a source of joy, at both club and international level. However, on Wednesday night last, it became a source of mourning, not to mention widespread anger, after 74 fans were killed (at first, according to reports aired on CNN, the death-toll was thought to have reached as high as 79) following riots after the final whistle of the game between Port Said team Al-Masry and the most successful club in Egyptian football, with arguably more followers than any other club in the country, Cairo's Al-Ahly. 

Al-Ahly supporters were apparently attacked in the immediate aftermath of the game, by Al-Masry fans, who invaded the pitch in celebration of their team's surprise 3:1 win over the visitors, and were, allegedly, allowed by local police to proceed unhindered towards the away support, causing the Al-Ahli team and staff to flee in front of them towards the, as it turned out, the comparative safety of the dressing-rooms, where a number of Al-Ahli fans had sought refuge, and it was reported that one of those fans had died in the arms of one of the Al-Ahli players. The contingent of players, staff and supporters were, according to a report from the Reuters news agency, eventually rescued from the dressing-rooms by a detachment of the Egyptian Army after spending some five hours locked-in inside.

Flares had been exchanged between both sets of supporters at different times during the match, and fires had been started, both on the terraces, and immediately behind the Port Said stadium. After the match, a number of supporters of the home team were seen entering the stand previously occupied by Al-Ahli fans - through gates which had been left open - and flinging fireworks over the wall at the top as the floodlights were switched off just moments after the game's conclusion.

The majority of those killed were Al-Ahly supporters, though CNN reported that security personnel from Al-Masry and, according to an article published in The Independent, police officers were also among the dead. (This information allegedly came from an employee at a Port Said morgue, interviewed by a member of the Associated Press.) The manager of the El-Amiri hospital in Port Said was also said to have stated that some fans had died from suffocation, while others had died as a result of a stampede, which happened at at least one of the exits from the stands where the Al-Ahly fans were housed; television footage seems to bear this out. Still others had been killed as a result of stab-wounds and being beaten to death with various forms of weaponry, it was reported. Over 400 people were thought to have been injured, some critically. 

It was also reported by the BBC in the early hours of Friday morning that protests from Al-Ahly supporters in Suez and Cairo have led to clashes with Egyptian security forces, and that at least 2 people in Suez and 2 in Cairo have died as a result of the clashes. This was later modified; 2 people were shot dead in Suez, while a soldier died as a result of injuries received in rioting in Cairo. At least 12 people have been killed in riots in Egypt since Thursday.

Accusations have been flying back and forth, in what has been a distressing couple of days for Egyptian football (not to mention the families of the dead and injured), and consipracy theories have been aired, with Islamist groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, in what will seem to many as an act of cheap, politically-motivated, points-scoring, weighing in with claims that supporters of the ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak were responsible for the carnage in Port Said, claiming that there was some sort of "invisible planning" behind this "unjustified massacre."

The Al-Ahly Ultras, the Al-Ahlawy, were accused of being involved in the riots in the Egyptian city. They, along with the ultras from Al-Ahly's arch-rivals, Zamalek, the Ultras White Knights, joined forces with the liberal, secular Muslim and Coptic activists in Cairo's Tahrir Square, shortly after the revolution of 25 January, while the Muslim Brotherhood held back.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, finally joined the revolt when it became apparent that the Mubarak régime was on the point of collapse, in an act redolent of Mr Jones' cat in George Orwell's novelette Animal Farm; the cat shirked any form of responsibility, but would reappear at meal-times or when the working day was done..

The Interior Ministry said on Thursday evening that some 47 people had been arrested as a result of the rioting at the game; the Ministry has also become a target of anger from the Al-Ahly supporters, who marched on their headquarters in the aftermath of the game, while others went to Cairo central railway station to await those returning back from the game in one piece.

Two military planes also reportedly brought many of the dead and  critically injured back to an air-base near Cairo; a sombre cargo, indeed. The Al-Ahli team were met at the air-base by the head of the interim military government, Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who said that the tragedy "will not bring Egypt down..These incidents happen anywhere in the world." Calls have been growing since the events of Wednesday and Thursday for the military government to step down.

The derby between Al-Ismailia and Zamalek was abandoned by the Egyptian FA after news of the events in Port Said began to filter through; television pictures showed fires in the stands of the stadium in Cairo, which were thought to have been started by Zamalek supporters angry at the game's cancellation.

For their part, according to the Egypt Independent, Al-Masry's Green Eagles ultras group denied that they were involved in the clashes with Al-Ahly supporters at the end of the game, one saying that they had formed a cordon on the running-track to stop attacks on the Al-Ahly fans, many of who were residents of Port Said and its hinterland. Another apparently went so far as to claim that four buses pulled up outside the Port Said Stadium at half-time and their occupants, many of whom were wearing Al-Masry shirts, entered the stadium.

The group also issued a statement on their Facebook page, which contained a commitment to peacefully supporting their favourites and also alluded to their being approached by unknown individuals who wished to pressurise the Egyptian government into giving them appartments in return for kidnapping the Al-Ahly players from their hotel on the day of the match. The Green Eagles also alleged that ticket-sellers for the game were being threatened by armed individuals on Wednesday morning.

The ultras' statement also contained the following excerpt, which was reproduced in the Egypt Independent: "Our group has nothing to do with what happened. We shall stop our activities as the Masry Ultras Green Eagles in respect to those who were killed for Egypt." A march was held in Port Said on Thursday condemning the violence at the 17000-capacity stadium the previous evening. Several of those killed in the riot as the Port Said Stadium were local Al-Ahli supporters.

Back in Cairo, meanwhile, many of those who, late on Wednesday night, had waited on the trains returning from Port Said took to the streets on Thursday and Friday, where they were joined by Zamalek fans, angry at what had happened, and targeted the offices of the Interior Ministry and converged on Tahrir Square.

Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri announced on Thursday that he had dismissed the entire board of the Egyptian FA, along with the governor of Port Said, the city's security director and a number of other government officials, as a result of the tragedy. According to Nile Sports and German football bible Kicker, Al-Ahli manager Manuel Jose requested that the club accept his request to resign his post in the aftermath of what happened.

What will the future hold for the club after what has happened? What about the future for football in Egypt as a whole? In a statement released on Wednesday evening, the Egyptian FA announced a period of three days of mourning, and that football in the top four divisions of the country's football pyramid would be put on hold "for an indefinite period."  A minute's silence in memory of the victims of the riot was held before each of the quarter-finals at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

In a letter dispatched to the (now deposed) EFA president Samir Zaher, FIFA president Sepp Blatter passed on his condolences and described the events in Port Said as "a black day for football." He added that the game of football was "a force for good, and we must not allow it to be abused by those who mean evil." (Time to start a purge of FIFA and the various associations and confederations worldwide then, Sepp.)

FIFA has also requested a report for the Egyptian government on what exactly happened in Port Said, and the following day, at the opening of a CONMEBOL meeting in Asunción, Paraguay, he was scathing about what had taken place (quotes from Agence France-Presse as reported in Canada.com) - meaning the deaths, but also the Egyptian government sacking the entire board of the EFA: "In Egypt, football has been victim of political interference..We cannot accept it. Football is for the people, the youth, to offer emotion and hope. We will never accept that it be used for political ends." Blatter is looking "to have the Egyptian federation reinstated."

Whether the Egyptian government likes it or not, and whether the Egyptian football community at large, still hurting from last week's turn of events, like it or not, Sepp Blatter was actually following FIFA guidelines by attempting to force the EFA and the government to reinstate the recently-sacked EFA leadership; as has been said before in the case of the Belizean football authorities (to give just one example), FIFA takes a rather dim view of political interference in the game of football, and could actually suspend the Egyptian FA's membership of FIFA, thus excluding Egyptian club and national sides from all FIFA competitions if it sees fit. That would hardly be beneficial to football in Egypt. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Off the pitch, the day after the riots in the Meditteranean city, even the Egyptian Stock Exchange, the EGX30, was in a state of flux as a result of events the night before, with shares falling by almost 4.6 per cent in the morning (to a low point of 4469 points at one stage) before recovering to the extent that by 12:00 CET, the index on Thursday was down by around 2.5 per cent on the close of trade on the Wednesday, at 4583 points.

Back to the football now, and not only was Manuel Jose, who himself was assaulted as he tried to reach the dressing-room after the game, thinking of resigning his managerial position at Al-Ahli, some of his charges were also contemplating retirement, at least in the immediate aftermath of the riots. Mohamed Aboutrika told club channel Al-Ahly TV that he would not be playing football again (and lambasted the local police and security forces on duty at the game for idly standing by as events unfolded), while colleague Mohamed Barakat told the reporter that, as far as he was concerned, there would be "no football after today [last Wednesday]", for him, at least.

Another player, Emar Moteab, stated that he would not play again until "retribution for the people that died" was exacted. Jose has since stated that he will, after all, be staying with Al-Ahli. His Al-Masri counterpart, Kamal Abu Ali, however, announced after the match that he would be resigning his post, and added: "This is not about soccer. This is bigger than that. This is a plot to topple the state."

Egyptian football will, ultimately, resume its normal course, but some things will have to change. Firstly, the ultras, and supporters in general, must take a step back from hooliganism, which has plagued football in Egypt for many, many years. During the years of the Mubarak régime, the football stadium was almost the only place where Egyptians could vent their fury at those in control of the country, eventually leading to the formation of ultras groups - not all of who are hooligans, of course; far from it - such as the Al-Ahlawy and the Ultras White Knights. The Green Eagles' decision to disband, is akin to a double-edged sword. Yes, it is a reaction to the events in the Port Said Stadium last Wednesday night, but will it drive the hooligan element at Al-Masry underground?

What of the allegations by Islamist political parties that supporters of the old Mubarak régime were responsible for the carnage in Port Said? One would have to surmise that the Muslim Brotherhood are using the name Mubarak as a type of tonton macoute, a bogeyman, if you like, to evoke fear and anger among the Egyptian population at large.

Another Animal Farm analogy could be drawn here, and this time Squealer, the right-hand pig and chief propagandist to the leader of the animals, Napoleon, springs to mind. In the period after the animals revolted and took over the farm, whenever something was destroyed (or stolen - or stage-managed, for that matter), Squealer would pin the blame firmly on the departed Snowball, who vied with Napoleon for leadership of the animals shortly after the revolution. A little of the "Snowball! He has been here! I can smell him distinctly!" treatment has been liberally applied by the Muslim Brotherhood and company in recent times.

That is not to say that dark forces were not at work; they might not have been supporters of Al-Masry, or even of Hosni Mubarak, but there may have been a rent-a-mob at work if the Al-Masry supporters quoted in various newspapers are to be believed. (One can only guess at Mubarak's thoughts as to what took place.) Who is to say that individuals paid by various "agencies" (for want of a better word) haven't been doing this for years, and who is to say that they won't be indulging in the same tactics for a long time to come? And, who will stop them? Are the military interested enough, or are they indeed in part culpable for what happened on the shores of the Meditteranean?

The hooliganism, ineptitude of those in charge of the Egyptian FA and an apparent lack of infrastructure - including effective crowd-control methods - have been bringing the domestic game down for years, in spite of the national team, the Pharaohs, and clubs such as Al-Ahly and Zamalek triumphing in African continental competitions in years gone by, and it is doubtful that the tragedy will be the catalyst for change. Things are unlikely to improve any time soon, in spite of current public opinion in the country. The will is there - at the moment - but will it be enough?
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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Links to some of the sources for the above article are listed below.

Egypt Independent: http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/633646
Nile Sports: http://nilesports.com/news/2012/02/03/love-egypt-al-ahly-manuel-jose/
Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2095316/Egypt-football-riot-Fans-fled-carrying-dead-bodies-covert-attack-security-forces.html
Link to a thought-provoking article in Egypt Independent by journalist and columnist Fayrouz Karawya:
http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/635326






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