One of the reasons I love football is that it is played in every country in the world, to the point that it could be considered a cultural universal. Like music, art, and cuisine, football often is a display of a country’s culture and reflective of their society as a whole. For the past year, Egypt has been involved in an internal struggle as it attempts to grow out of the tyranny and oppression of a dictator into a fledgling democracy.
Most are familiar with the scenes of protests and riots taking place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. For months this has been the scene of protests, first taking place against oppressive dictator Hosni Mubarak and now against the military regime that has taken charge of the country during the interim ruling period. These protests and clashes have now spilled over to the football pitch, as yesterday saw one of the most violent football related disasters in recent memory.
Port Said was the scene for yesterday’s match between defending Egyptian champions Al-Ahly and their rivals Al Masry. The two have a history of rivalry with a fair share of clashes happening between the rival groups of fans. Al-Ahly struck first in the match with an early goal from Brazilian import Fabio Junior in the 11th minute. The visiting Al-Ahly fans unveiled a banner that insulted their Al Masry hosts. This unveiling led to the first conflict in the stands, which led to the match being stopped for several minutes until order was restored.
As the match continued, Al Masry was able to mount a dramatic second half comeback against their Cairo rivals. A brace from midfielder Momen Zakaria gave Al Masry a lead in the 83rd minute and a 92nd minute goal from Abdoulaye Cisse gave Al Masry the 3-1 victory. After the final whistle blast signaled the end of the match, the conflict between groups of fans continued and spilled onto the pitch.
Just after the final whistle, fans began flooding onto the pitch attempting to attack Al-Ahly players and fans. Al-Ahly fans quickly exited the pitch to their locker rooms and many of their fans attempted to follow, as a small group of riot police attempted to protect the group was quickly overwhelmed. More and more fans continued spilling onto the pitch and Ultras began targeted attacks on Al-Ahly fans. According to some reports these Ultras carried weapons such as knives, metal bars, and fireworks.
Ultras have played a crucial role in the Egyptian uprising thus far. They were one of the first groups to stand up to the brutal military police and were in some cases responsible for protecting protesters in Tahrir Square. Ultras are experienced in clashes with police which is one of the reasons they took responsibility for protecting the protesters.
During this particular clash, riot police could be witnessed in several videos standing idle while fans around them were attacked. Bloody bodies could be seen scattered across the field, with deaths being reported due to stab wounds, blows to the head, suffocation with scarves, and due to trampling by fans attempting to escepe. The death total as it currently stands varies between sources from 72-82 with over 1000 reported wounded, making it the worst football related disaster in over 15 years. Some of those dead included members of the security forces in charge of protecting supporters. Al-Ahly star Mohamed Aboutrika expressed his outrage on Al-Ahly satellite television network after the incident saying “People here are dying, and no one is doing a thing. It’s like a war.” “Is life this cheap?”
Locker rooms were transformed into makeshift emergency rooms treating the dying and wounded, while rioters set fire to parts of the stadium. Military helicopters and vehicles were mobilized to transport Al-Ahly fans and the wounded back to Cairo, while fans and protesters assembled at train stations in Cairo to await the return of fans. Protests took place over night and military rulers have declared a three day mourning period for the lives lost during the incident.
Many are admonishing the lack of intervention by police forces on the scene for being responsible for such an incident to take place. General Marwan Mustapha of the Egyptian interior ministry has said “Our policemen have tried to contain them, but not engage.” He also said “There were organized groups in the crowds that purposely provoked police all through the match and escalated the violence and stormed the field after the final whistle.” So far over 50 arrests have been made in connection to the riot.
As a result of these attacks, Al-Ahly rivals Zamalek abandoned their match in Cairo midgame in a display of solidarity for those lost at the riot. The Egyptian Premier League has suspended matches indefinitely and it has been reported that leaders of the Egyptian FA have been sacked. A moment of silence was called before debate began in Egyptian Parliament today and the Confederation of African Football said a similar tribute would be made before African Cup of Nations semi-finals this weekend.