After a forced one-year break, the national championship resumes. But the consequences of the Port Said tragedy loom large, reports James Montague.
Bob Bradley was one of the lucky few to see the restart of the Egyptian football league in the flesh. The American coach of the country’s national team was in the empty stands of the June 30 stadium – a vast, soulless bowl, built by the military, far from the chaos, smog and tear gas of revolutionary Cairo – to witness Ahly, Africa’s club of the 20th century, take on Ghazl el Mahallah in the season opener.
It had been 366 long days since Bradley had last seen a domestic match in Egypt. Back then, he was in the Cairo International Stadium, to see Zamalek take on Ittihad of Alexandria. But when supporters of both fans began to set fires inside the ground at half time, news was filtering through that something had gone very badly wrong – not in Cairo, but three hours drive away in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, where Masry had just beaten Ahly 3-1.
“That was a day all of us will remember,” Bradley recalled. “Right before half-time, we heard reports that people had lost their lives [in Port Said]. The rest of the night we were trying to follow news reports and get an idea of what exactly had gone down. I stayed up very late into the night.”
That was February 1 last year, a date now seared into Egypt’s consciousness, and a tragedy that Bradley and the entire country have been waiting for answers to explain. Seventy-two people lost their lives in the aftermath of that match. Yet, the ripples have been felt far outside the sport, even reaching the feet of the country’s first democratically elected, but deeply unpopular, President Mohamed Morsi.
Trouble started when the fans of Masry stormed the pitch and fired flares. Ahly’s players fled for their lives.Thousands of Ahly fans ran for their lives too, but they found no refuge, with a locked gate denying them a route of escape. Minutes later, 72 people, mostly young men, were dead – crushed but some killed by skull fracture, according to the prosecutor’s report – in one of the world’s worst football stadium tragedies.
Protest and procrastination
Most of the dead were members of the Ahlawy, Ahly’s Ultras group, which had played such an important role in the country’s revolution. The Ultras were both the protest movement’s metronome and its battering ram. Accusations following the Port Said tragedy claimed the deaths had been orchestrated by the regime, as pay back for the Ahlawy’s prominent role in the January 25 revolution.
The authorities, of course, denied the charges. It was hooliganism, fate, a mistake. But the Ahlawy did not see it that way. Instead, they waged a direct action campaign to successfully prevent the league’s restart until justice was served. Seventy-three people – mainly Masry fans, along with nine security officials – had been arrested.
The trial meandered on without conclusion. Every time the Egyptian FA set a date, the Ahlawy would protest and the date would be postponed. New dates came, more protest followed and new dates went. Finally, a date for the verdict was set for January 26.
If the Ahlawy were satisfied, the league could restart. If they weren’t, Cairo would burn. That day turned out to be a bloody week for Egypt. Live on national television, a judge handed down 21 death sentences to Masry fans for their role in the Port Said tragedy. Many of the 15,000 Ahlawy, gathered outside Ahly’s training ground to hear the news, fired celebratory gunshots in the air.
“It’s a very good decision by the court,” said Miha, a founding member of the Ahlawy, who had been in Port Said on the tragic day. “We hope it will be a perfect ending for this story. We have been waiting for this for so long. For 21 people to be sentenced to an execution is a very good decision.”
But in Port Said, the judgement led to the deaths of more than 30 people in clashes with the police. A crowd attacked the prison where the accused were held and two policemen were shot dead. For a few days, it looked like President Morsi had lost control of the country. Battles raged around Cairo’s Tahrir Square and a curfew – much mocked and instantly broken – was imposed on Port Said.
“People are truly sure that these people [the 21 Masry fans sentenced to death] didn’t kill anyone,” said Tariq, a 32-year-old accountant, on a march with thousands of protesters in Port Said to break the first night of Morsi’s curfew. “All the supporters for the big teams in Cairo or anywhere else in the country believe that Masry supporters did this. They say, ‘You killed them, the Ahly supporters. You are like a terrorist’.”
With so much blood on the streets, it was a miracle that the league restarted at all. But, almost exactly a year from the tragedy, Ahly kicked off against Mahallah, albeit with the fans banned from the stadiums. There was, of course, a financial imperative too.
Without football for a year, many of Egypt’s league clubs were threatened with bankruptcy. Wages were not being paid. The Egyptian Independent suggested $178m in financial losses from the league’s suspension.
“We have a huge financial crisis not just in Ahly but in all the clubs… We’ve a lot of commitments and obligations that we can not really honour, for example, to players,” explained Khaled Mortagy, a board member of the club. “Winning the Champions League gave us some revenue… Here in Japan [where Ahly represented Africa at last year’s FIFA Club World Cup] one of the most important things for us is the prize money. Every step forward is half a million dollars. That can solve some of our financial problems.”
But it wasn’t enough. Ahly still had to loan out three of their best players on the eve of the league’s restart – Geddo and Ahmed Fathi moved to Hull City in the English Championship and, most painfully of all, their talismanic player, Mohamed Aboutrika, sent to Bani Yas in the UAE. There are several hurdles to cross, before a vague approximation of normalcy returns to Egypt and its football league.
The Ahlawy have vowed that the next battle will be to fight for the return of fans to the terraces. Then, on March 9, the remaining 52 people accused of having a role in Port Said, including nine security officers, will hear their verdicts in the trial. But the question of what exactly happened on that night remains shrouded in mystery. Reporting restrictions on Egyptian journalists meant few concrete details have emerged. The accusations of a conspiracy, of a cover up, remain.
“I think it’s important, after a year and a day, seeing football in the stadium,” said Bradley, who is rebuilding his national team, ahead of his next 2014 World Cup qualifier on March 22, against Zimbabwe. “We all recognise this tragedy will never, ever be out of our minds or out of our hearts, but there’s also a point, without ever forgetting, that you try to move forward.”
It took just 12 minutes for the first goal in Egyptian domestic football, for one year and one day, to be scored. Dominique Da Silva, Ahly’s Mauritian-Senegalese striker, curled a classy right foot past the Mahallah goalkeeper. Da Silva ran to the watching TV cameras and peeled off his jersey. Underneath he wore a black t-shirt with the message: “We’ll never Forget You.” The ghosts of Port Said are certainly watching the unfolding drama from the sidelines.
James Montague is the author of “When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East” (deCoubertin Books).