Being a football fan in Egypt is a risky, even deadly, passion

A police pickup truck burns after being set on fire by Egyptian Ultras, hard-core soccer fans, during an anti government rally in front of the Giza security directorate, background, in Giza, Egypt. Arabic on the wall at right, reads “March 9th, retribution, hurt the interior ministry.” (AP/Nasser Nasser, File)
Updated 16 April 2018
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Being a football fan in Egypt is a risky, even deadly, passion

CAIRO: Being a football fan in Egypt has been a dangerous, sometimes even deadly, passion for years. That may soon change.
The Al-Ahly club’s “Ultras” — hardcore supporters of the Cairo-based team and the country’s largest fan association — have appealed to authorities to negotiate an end to years of tension and violence while disavowing members involved in a recent post-game rampage that had temporarily shattered the prospects for reconciliation.
Preliminary contacts between the two sides are underway as a prelude to talks to hammer out an agreement allowing fans back in games for the first time since a ban on attendance following a 2012 riot in the coastal city of Port Said that left more than 70 fans, mostly Ultras, dead in one of the world’s worst soccer-related incidents.
The ban on fans attending games was later relaxed for continental games. An attempt earlier this year to introduce a partial and gradual relaxation of the ban on domestic games was aborted at the last minute, with police citing security concerns.
The ongoing contacts to lift the ban are a welcome development that, if fruitful, would give a significant boost to the sport at a time when Egypt is making its return to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
“We are all suffering from the absence of fans and want them back to revive the atmosphere in stadiums,” said Mukhtar Mukhtar, the manager of league club Military Production. “Their absence has undoubtedly impacted on the players’ performance.”
A deal is believed to be possible now because the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi appears to be more confident of its control over the country after years of turmoil and a massive crackdown that sent thousands of dissidents to jail.
The riot in Port Said in 2012 was not the only soccer-related tragedy to befall Egypt.
In 2015, 22 fans were killed in a stampede prompted by heavy tear gas fired by police outside a military-owned stadium in a Cairo suburb. Additionally, hundreds of fans have been arrested over the years as the Ultras took part in violent protests, including one in 2013 that torched the headquarters of the Egyptian football federation and vandalized a police social club, and others marking the anniversary of the 2012 tragedy.
The violence has over time deepened a sort of vendetta between police and fans, who seize every occasion to taunt the paramilitary force with chants, some of which also have an anti-government slant. Moreover, many fans accuse the police of failing to prevent the deadly Port Said riot or intervene to end it when it first started.
The years of violence, arrests and incessant demonization of fans by the pro-government media have led to the reduction of the number of association members across the country, forcing some to even voluntarily disband. But they have also given rise to a younger and more radical generation whose resentment of authorities is more deeply entrenched and seem more inclined to be involved in acts of violence, according to veteran fan association leaders.
But fatigue from a long, drawn-out conflict may have finally set in.
“We are tired of going around police stations and prisons looking for our comrades,” said Mohammed Saheel, a former Ultras leader from Cairo. “We want things to quieten down with the government, see the detainees go free and the crackdown ends.”
Ultras leaders and lawyers representing them say that another idea under consideration is to disband the association as a goodwill gesture they hope the government would reciprocate with a pardon for convicted members or those in detention awaiting trial. Another idea under consideration is to retain a private security firm to police matches, thus removing the possibility of fan-police frictions.
The fallout from the violence of the past years has been catastrophic for the game, by far Egypt’s most popular, hurting mainly the big clubs with a large support base. Club officials complain it has negatively impacted on performances, with games in domestic competitions played before eerily silent terraces.
Not surprisingly, the national squad that qualified for the World Cup in Russia is mostly made up of foreign-based players, led by Liverpool forward Mohammed Salah.
The Ultras and their clashes with police are a potent example of how soccer and politics mix in Egypt. The Ultras played a key role in the uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. They fought police for months in street clashes that followed.
Their battle of wills with the police led to a court ruling in 2015 that outlawed the Ultras, along with other associations, branding them terrorist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.
The pro-government media has claimed they were also linked to a leftist, anti-government group, April 6, which together with the Brotherhood have been declared terrorist organizations in separate court rulings.
The feud endures, prompting calls by some commentators for both sides to sit down and resolve their differences to avoid more violence. These calls followed a statement released April 3 by the Ultras in which they appealed to El-Sisi to start a dialogue between them and police to iron out their differences and to pardon nearly 50 members detained since last month’s rampage in a Cairo stadium.
The statement, issued to mark El-Sisi’s re-election last month, was the clearest peace offering by the Ultras.
“I appeal to the presidency to respond to the statement,” said Mohammed Rashwan, a prominent defense lawyer who has represented members of the Ultras in a series of court cases. “I have already been in contact with the minister of youth and sports and there are initiatives under discussion to allow fans to return to stadiums and lay down a system for that.”


Aussie ace Matt Jurman says Slaven Bilic will get Al-Ittihad ‘back where they belong’

Updated 20 October 2018
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Aussie ace Matt Jurman says Slaven Bilic will get Al-Ittihad ‘back where they belong’

  • Al-Ittihad defender Matt Jurman has backed Slaven Bilic to turn things around for the club
  • A disastrous start to the season has left Al-Ittihad rock bottom of the Saudi Pro League table

KUWAIT CITY: Al-Ittihad defender Matt Jurman has backed Slaven Bilic to turn things around for the club, predicting his new coach can inject some much-needed confidence into the team.
A disastrous start to the season has left Al-Ittihad rock bottom of the Saudi Pro League table with one draw and four losses from their opening five games.
Ramon Diaz was sacked as coach after just two matches, with Bilic (below) parachuted in three weeks ago to replace the Argentine.
The first game of his reign ended in defeat away to Al-Fateh and on Friday they drew 1-1 at home with Ohod, but Australian Jurman, who moved to Al-Ittihad from Suwon Bluewings in the summer, believes it is only a matter of time before Bilic transforms the club’s fortunes.
“It’s not a situation I’ve seen before, a coach being sacked after only two games,” Jurman told Arab News. “It shows that it is cut-throat here but the players and coaches have to respond positively to that pressure.
“A club the size of Al-Ittihad has to be winning games and I think that Bilic and his coaching staff will take us in the right direction. It’s mentally tough when you keep losing, but we have great players in the team and we know we should be higher than where we are.
“We just need more belief and I certainly feel the new coach will give us that. Then I’m sure we’ll shoot up the table.”
On a personal level, Jurman now has the opportunity to work with a coach who enjoyed a distinguished career playing in his position. An uncompromising center-back, Bilic reached the World Cup semifinals with Croatia in 1998 and also played in the Premier League with Everton and West Ham.
“He’s right up there with the best coaches in the league and of course was a great player,” Jurman said. “Obviously he played in my position so I’m excited to learn from him and I’m sure he can help make me a better player.
“It’s been a difficult start to the season but now we can look forward and I’m sure that the new coach and his staff are going to get us back on track.”
Jurman made a bold career move by deciding to swap Suwon Bluewings for Al-Ittihad in July after a successful 18-month stint in South Korea.
But despite the tough introduction to life in Saudi football, the Australia international insisted he has no regrets.
“It’s been a big change coming to Saudi Arabia. Training at night, the temperatures we’re playing in every week — these things take time to get used to. But it’s a great opportunity to experience a culture I’ve never seen before.
“It would have been easy to stay in Korea but when you get a call saying one of the biggest clubs in the Middle East are interested in you, it’s a no-brainer. I was told about the Pro League expansion, how they wanted more foreigners on each team.
“I knew I was going to play against quality players, quality strikers — I wanted to come and test myself.”
As well as enjoying the challenge on the pitch, Jurman has been particularly impressed by the fans off it, playing in front of some huge crowds at King Abdullah Sports City.
“Al-Ittihad is such a big club and even at our away games, our fans usually outnumber the home team. Seeing that type of support is fantastic. The fans are crazy, the best supporters I’ve seen.
“It seems you can’t go anywhere in Jeddah without finding an Al-Ittihad fan and that’s been eye-opening, to see just how much they love football in Saudi Arabia.”
Jurman was not the only Australian to arrive in Saudi Arabia this summer, with Socceroos goalkeeper Brad Jones moving to Al-Nassr from Feyenoord.
And after fellow Aussie Mark Milligan’s summer departure from Al-Ahli, Jurman has been grateful to have another compatriot to speak to.
“I chatted to Mark after our last game in Russia at the World Cup and he helped me make up my mind to move here. He was living in Jeddah too so it was a real shame that he left soon after. The new coach came in there and that’s how it works sometimes in football.
“Now Brad is here too and that’s been great. We’re always chatting on WhatsApp, talking about life and how we’re settling in. It’s always good to have that kind of support.
“Unfortunately for me, Brad’s team is flying at the moment. But I’m sure that before long we’ll turn things round at Al-Ittihad and then we can both be up there.”