It was a year ago this month that Egypt’s Health Ministry officially reported on the 73 soccer fans that were killed and the hundreds more injured after the Port Said stadium riot. Events took place after a match between Al Masry of Port Said and Al Ahly of Cairo, two teams who have come to represent different political factions in Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago, although historically they are not major soccer rivals.
The match kick off was originally delayed by 30 minutes because Al Masry fans were on the pitch and refused to get off, which was just a sign of things to come. During half time and after each of Al Masry’s three second half goals, their fans stormed the pitch leading to the thousands of spectators running on to the field at the final whistle. The Al Masry fans started throwing bottles and fireworks at the Al Ahly players. As the players ran from the field taking cover, the Al Masry fans, who were armed with knives, swords, clubs, and stones began attacking the Al Ahly fans who tried to flood the few exits to escape the stadium.
Television images of the mayhem in Egypt showed the images as the Al Masry thugs chased people out of the stadium and afterwards there were immediate questions about the lack of security at the stadium on the day. Cameras caught images of police officers standing by as players and fans rushed past them to escape without any protection. An Egyptian state-owned news site called Ahram reported on the day:
Ahly’s panicked players flooded the club’s in-house television channel with phone calls to speak about the post-match horror and call on authorities to intervene and protect them.
“The security forces left us, they did not protect us. One fan has just died in the dressing room in front of me,” veteran playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika screamed during a phone call with the club’s channel.
“People have died, we are seeing corpses now. There are no security forces or army personnel to protect us,” attacking midfielder Mohamed Barakat added.
Both players and fans of Al Ahly seemed rightly justified in questioning why the security forces at the stadium were absent on the day, raising strong suspicions that this was not fans getting out of control on the day of a big match. This was believed to be an orchestrated event by the Al Masry ultras, as the police at the stadium were accused of allowing the Al Masry attackers to enter the visiting team’s stands and locker rooms. Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent Cairo daily, published photographs of Al Ahly’s players being evacuated from the stadium in an armored personnel carrier.
These catastrophic events are believed to have happened because Al Ahly’s ultras are known to have played a large role in the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime as they teamed with the ultra supporters from the other leading Cairo club to fight against police in the early stages of the revolution. This is apparently why the police allowed the Al Ahly fans to be attacked, as a retribution for their political movement. Now, a year after one of the world’s deadliest soccer riots, that killed 74 and left over 1,000 wounded, a Cairo court handed sentenced 21 of those involved in the violence to death sentences. This has caused another outbreak of violence in Egypt as after the ruling ultras from each club clashed leaving 28 dead and at least another 300 wounded.
Friends and relatives of the fans and police officers charged attempted to storm the jail where the men were being held resulting in clashes between civilians and police again as well. The police officers who allowed the violence at the Port Said stadium a year ago to take place will not be sentenced until March, which will likely lead to more violence in a month’s time. It was the Al Masry supporters who were mainly at fault once again for the violence last week as members of their ultras group were sentenced to death, and now the Al Ahly ultras have stated that they are waiting to react to the sentencing of the 54 other defendants including former police officers next month.
“We are waiting for the March 9th verdict,” said an Ultra fan who asked not to give his name. “This fight was between us and those responsible from the military, police, and government. We vowed retribution or chaos. We will take our revenge.”
With more dead and injured this month because of last year’s riots and with more violence likely to come after the March 9th verdict, Egypt is once again bracing itself for large outbreaks of violence in its capital city. Supporters of Al Ahly are looking for revenge on the police officers that allowed their friends and fellow fans to be beaten to death, whether the courts hand down punishment or if they have to take matters into their own hands. This is yet another example of how soccer can be used as a catalyst for change and political leverage.
Historically the rivalry between Al Masry and Al Ahly is not the most intense in Egypt and usually the biggest clashes for Al Ahly is with Giza based club Zamalek. The antagonism between Al Masry and Al Ahly started to come to the forefront in recent seasons as crowd trouble had marred the same fixture in Port Said the previous year, all of which was exacerbated by Al Masry’s decision to appoint Hossam Hassan Hussein as their new manager. Hassan was a legendary striker for Egypt as a player and made 169 appearances for the national team scoring 69 goals. He started his club career with Al Ahly and played over 200 games for Egypt’s biggest club before winding down his career with a stint playing for Al Masry. His managerial career has also seen him coach Al Ahly’s fierce rivals Zamalek. In the 2011 season, Hassan was involved in a touchline argument with Al Ahly manager Manuel Jose while he was in charge of Zamalek, which furthered the ultras’ distaste for the now Al Masry manager. Before the stadium riot of 2012 both Hassan and Al Ahly director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz made public appeals for calm before the game but afterwards Manuel Jose was outspoken in his belief that the violence was orchestrated between Al Masry fans and the police.
The ultras of Al Ahly are a relatively new fanatical group of supporters who follow their club in a similar fashion to the ultras groups of Italy and South America, but are already famous for their support of the Egyptian revolution. Al Ahly is not only the most successful club in Egypt but all of Africa and were named “African Club of the Century” by the Confederation of African Football. Since their founding in 1907 they have gone on to win 36 Egyptian Premier League titles and 7 CAF Champions Leagues both of which are domestic and African records. Many fans of this historical club and all Egyptians alike await to see what is going to happen in March and if more of their fellow countrymen are going to die for their support of a soccer club and/or the revolution.