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.”


Maria Sharapova looks back to her best as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal show no signs of slowing down

Updated 18 January 2019
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Maria Sharapova looks back to her best as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal show no signs of slowing down

  • Sharapova dumps out defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.
  • Rafa and Roger brush aside young guns in straight sets victories.

LONDON: It is coming up to the end of the first week of the Australian Open, so we thought we would take a look and see how some of the big names fared on day five of the year’s first Grand Slam.

MARIA SHARAPOVA

Maria Sharapova warned she is in the sort of form to win the Australian Open after she dumped Carolina Wozniacki out with an impressive 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win. It was the Russian’s best win since her return from a drugs ban and she looked like a winner-in-waiting.
“I thought the level was quite high. I knew I’d get a tough match — she (Wozniacki) is the defending champion,” the five-time Slam champion said.
“I haven’t played many matches in the last year against top players so it was really rewarding to win that last set. These are the kinds of matches I train for.”



ROGER FEDERER

Ageless Roger Federer marked his 100th Rod Laver Arena match Friday by storming past Taylor Fritz, then looked forward to a “high quality” last-16 clash against another young gun, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion continued his quest for a record seventh Australian Open title with a 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 third-round demolition of 21-year-old American Fritz in just 88 minutes of flawless tennis.
Next up is 14th seed Tsitsipas. And the 37-year-old Federer is looking forward to taking on the fiery young Greek, who is 17 years his junior.
Federer played him in the recent mixed teams Hopman Cup, winning a closely contested singles 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/4), and said he was impressed.
“I think he played really well there. I actually did too. I thought it was really high quality tennis,” Federer said.
“This is obviously a different type of match, it being best of five, it being a fourth round of a Slam.”



RAFAEL NADAL

Rafael Nadal declared “everything is a step forward” after brutally brushing aside Alex de Minaur at the Australian Open Friday in just the Spaniard’s third match since the US Open.
The world No. 2 was in ominous form as he continued his quest for an 18th Grand Slam by punishing the Australian teenager in a third-round tennis masterclass 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
“In general terms, everything is a step forward. So that’s positive news for me,” said the man who won the Aussie Open in 2009.
“I’m very happy for the victory against someone who had won seven matches in a row, winning a tournament.”
On his fitness Nadal added: “Probably 10 years ago it would have been difficult not playing much tennis in the build-up but now I have been in this situation many times with the injuries I have had.
“I have to deal with the ups and downs of my body but I try to enjoy any moment on the court.”



MARIN CILIC

The former US Open champions was made to work for his place in the last 16 as he struggled to beat Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-3. Verdasco showed glimpses of the form that once made him a top-10 player and had a match point, one he frittered away with a double fault.
I was just slightly luckier in those crucial moments,” the sixth-seeded Cilic said.
“(It is) unbelievable. Emotions were up and down,” Cilic said.
“When I was down two sets to none, it was a big hill to climb.”
It’s the seventh time in Cilic’s career that he has emerged to win a match after dropping the opening two sets.



ANGELIQUE KERBER

Second seed Kerber received a gift ride into the Australian Open fourth round for her 31st birthday when she overpowered local wildcard Kimberly Birrell 6-1, 6-0.
The Wimbledon champion swept world No. 240 Birrell aside in just 58 minutes to set up a last-16 clash with unseeded American Danielle Collins.
Kerber, a winner at Melbourne Park in 2016, said she was used to celebrating her birthday on the road at the season-opening Grand Slam.
“I think it’s the 12th time in a row,” she said. “I’m getting older but I have the best time here and I’ll never forget my birthdays here in Australia.”
Kerber reached the semifinals last year but lost to Simona Halep in a tight three-setter.