February 1, 2012 was a moment that shocked and horrified the football world. Over 70 people we killed and almost 1000 injured in a riot in Port Said, Egypt. One year after the Arab Spring rose up and disposed of a dictator, bringing hope amidst frustration, the Port Said stadium riots became unquestionably the biggest disaster in the history of Egyptian football.
The match between Cairo’s Al-Ahly Club and the Port Said Al-Masry Club ended in mayhem. The fans rushed the field and engaged in brawling with the supporters of the opposing team. To see footage of the players running to the locker room, their lives in danger, is mortifying. They could hear and see the havoc of spectators being crushed around them.
The massive injuries on that day were said to be exacerbated by police and military officers who did nothing to help. Many died as a result of panic and stampeding.
In a country already fueled with civil and political unrest, football is a national passion. It validates identity, passion and community.
The stadium is a gathering place and an outlet for men. Their community and club loyalties are fierce. It is the ardent support of neighborhood club that represents the interest of the locals. The club’s wins are a collective success for supporters. The political charged brawl left a scar on the face of Egyptian football. It left the players with question and little confidence in the system.
Although training resumed quickly after for both teams, many players required Post Traumatic Stress counseling and few threatened to quit if the perpetrators were not brought to justice.
Starting with the dissolution of the national governing body: The Egyptian Football Federation (EFF) fans were banned from stadium and the Egyptian Premier League was shut down.
The political overtones are incomprehensible to those not living in areas where safety and police protection are paramount. One could not fathom the amount of volatility surrounding a football match.
To placate the country President Morsi declared that all the 21 victims mostly from Al-Ahly, were martyrs and the alleged hooligans would be held accountable in court. 52 have yet to be sentenced. However, there is much debate that the court was a charade. Port Said residents insisted the proceeding were not done in the best interest of justice but to calm the angry citizenry of Cairo and Al-Ahly wailing for justice for their fallen.
The net result of the ensuing trials, was that 21 men were sentenced to death. Further propelling a sense of persecution and unfair bias that Port Said residents have felt since the stadium tragedy.
Immediately, following this announcement on January 25, 2013 exactly two years after the beginning of the uprising in Tahrir Square, more violent protests broke out.
Families and supporters of the defendants and Al-Masry supporters, who were sentenced to death for inciting the murders of the Al-Ahly fans, attacked the police station and tried to free the defendants.
Five days of violence swept over the region and President Morsi declared a State of Emergency and imposed a curfew on three cities. The devastating part is obviously the loss of life of these fans. That this violence is not related to football but is instead more of a product of intense politics; is a strong opinion.
Sectarian and political passions ignited and exploded leaving a trail of horror on the pitch.
The beautiful game, the world’s game, was not disfigured this day. The game, which ended in a score of 3-1, may have been the catalyst but was not the reason.
To those familiar with Middle Eastern Politics, there is a broader picture here. Although football and politics are inextricably linked, there must be a call for reason to continue. To let this black mark destroy restoration and rebuilding of football would be a disservice to the country.
What’s next for Egyptian football is hard to tell. There are those coaches and managers who continue to help their teams train and play friendlies matches domestically and internationally. There are ongoing efforts to resume a sense of normalcy but due to a complete lack of security, currently there are no games being played in Egypt.
But with the upcoming World Cup 2014 qualifiers fast approaching, Egypt has an opportunity to rebuild. They are already at the top of their group in the African qualifiers after beating Mozambique 2-0 in June. They played well, in an empty stadium, but also went on to beat Guinea 3-2 five days later. Egypt is expected to play Zimbabwe for World Cup 2014 qualifier at home in March. Hopefully, their success on pitch can help the country start a process of healing. But with the recent convictions and sentences of the 21 fans, the country will have to delicately balance it’s forward process in football with managing anger and frustration at the system.
The EFF is expected to resume by early spring and have already organized a schedule of league fixtures for the 2013 season.
Football needs to retain its’ rightful place in Egypt as a source of pride and joy and not one that is reminiscent of violence and death. Egypt has not attended the World Cup in 24 years and perhaps this upcoming tournament, showcasing the best teams in the world, can provide a broken and torn Egypt with some light and pride. It can give the struggling and furious youth, leader and mentors to look up to.
Egyptians love their football and deserve to have it played in their honor, in unity and in peace.