Mohamed Aboutrika is not your typical 21st century professional footballer.
As the most famous and most well known footballer plying his trade on the African continent, Aboutrika is very well off and possibly the most famous person residing on the massive landmass. But Aboutrika shuns the limelight. Happily married with three children, there are no WAGs or tabloid scandals in this footballer’s world.
What makes the 34 year-old somewhat more of a rarity in the modern world of the professional footballer is that he has a degree in Philosophy. He operates as something of a philosopher/theologian in his homeland of Egypt in general and his home town of Giza in particular. David Beckham or Ashley Cole he most definitely is not.
In 2008, Aboutrika was voted ahead of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o as the BBC African Sports Personality of the Year. His causes are many and varied, but fundamentally he wants better rights for his people, who for too long were subjected to the autocratic reign of President Hosni Mubarak. When Mohameda Aboutrika talks, Egyptians listen.
Aboutrika is a devout Muslim, a tireless voluntary charity campaigner and is known for gestures such as famously turning down a pay rise because he didn’t want to be paid more than a team-mate he viewed as being undervalued.
When protesters filled Tahrir Square to protest against Mubarak’s regime, the former president asked Aboutrika to ask them to go home. The player went and joined the protesters instead.
Assistant coach of the Egyptian national team Zak Abdel said at the time:
If he had done what he was asked, there probably wouldn’t have been a revolution. People have that much respect for Mohamed Aboutrika.
Aboutrika plays for Egypt’s biggest club; Al-Ahly who in 2000 were voted the “Egyptian Football Club of the Century” by the Confederation of African Football.
In African football, the term ‘Ultra’ does not mean ‘hooligan’ but the term instead refers to passionate supporters of a football club and supporters who want the best for their club. To call an African football fan an ‘Ultra’ is a term of endearment.
The supporters of Al-Ahly are known as Ultras Ahlawy and their story is one of immense courage and a story which football fans everywhere should pay heed to.
Having protested at the tyrannical reign of the previous regime under Mubarak, Ultras Ahlawy are once again back on the streets of Cairo to protest against Islamic presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi appears to be a man cut from the same cloth as Mubarak and supporters of the super political Al-Ahly – led by their star man Aboutrika – do not want to see him in charge of the country. While Aboutrika and his club are overtly political, their actions tend to be peaceful.
When news was broken that protesters at the Presidential Palace were being attacked by Morsi supporters at the start of this month, the Ultras, some of whom had initially welcomed Morsi’s election, marched to their rescue. Before the current trouble is over, more of them will die as they fight for freedom and democracy.
On 1st February, in a game at Port Said – a hotbed of the Egyptian Revolution, 79 Ultras Ahlawy were killed when fans clashed immediately after Al-Masry and Al-Ahly had finished a game which had finished in a 3-1 win for the home side.
It is thought that the ruling army were negligent at best and co-conspirators at worst as they failed abysmally to prevent the deadliest incident since Mubarak was ousted.
Many reports of the disaster suggest that police and military leaders at the game allowed, or possibly even caused the disturbances which saw so many killed as well as more than 1,000 injured.
At the final whistle that fateful night, Al-Masry fans threw bottles and fireworks at the Al-Ahly players, who ran away from their attackers. The Al-Masry fans were armed with knives, swords, clubs, and stones, and subsequently attacked the Al-Ahly fans, who tried to escape by running away.
In the ensuing melees, 79 people were killed. Some were stabbed and clubbed, while others were deliberately thrown off the stands or died in the stampede.
Al-Ahly’s star man Aboutrika reported that fans were ushered into the visitor’s dressing room and away from the rampaging hordes. Four of those Ultras Ahlawy died in those changing rooms.
Eyewitnesses said that the police “did nothing to stop it”, and “refused to open the gates” to allow the crowds to escape. The bureau chief of the Voice of America in Egypt received reports that police opened barriers separating Al-Ahly and Al-Masry supporters. Another witness said that many people were allowed into the stadium without tickets.
In contrast to other countries’ reactions to similar tragedies, the only reaction that seemed humane was taken in the aftermath of that Port Said disaster. The remainder of the 2011-’12 Egyptian season was cancelled.
The 2012-’13 season is yet to start in Egypt. With political tensions at their zenith, it is almost certain that Mohamed Aboutrika has played a part in this decision to postpone the start of the season. If and when the Egyptian League eventually kicks off again, Aboutrika will play a part in deciding the most appropriate date.
Neither Ultras Ahlawy nor Mohamed Aboutrika are perfect, having been criticized for being old fashioned and unsophisticated as well as for being overly stubborn in how they conduct their business. They have however worked wonders in terms of their efforts to make their country a democracy for all and not just an elite few.
When top flight football eventually does return to Egypt, Al-Ahly should hold a special place in every neutral’s heart. If every club was like them, the oft troubled world of modern football would be an infinitely better place.