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.”


Liverpool's Andrew Robertson ready for Roma Champions League test

Updated 23 April 2018
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Liverpool's Andrew Robertson ready for Roma Champions League test

  • Young Scottish star was very impressive during Liverpool's 5-1 aggregate destruction of Man City in last-eight clash.
  • Robertson refuses to take Roma lightly after their shock victory over Barcelona in the last round.

LIVERPOOL: With a desire stoked in the stands of Parkhead, Andrew Robertson is now fired up to fulfil a childhood dream.
While following the fortunes of Celtic, the defender’s first Champions League final memory was when Zinedine Zidane volleyed Real Madrid to success in 2002 as the contest was staged in Robertson’s home city of Glasgow. He was just eight years old.
While Robertson was deemed too small to play for his boyhood idols, released at 15 with a future uncertain, he has grown to prove his worth on Europe’s biggest club stage with Liverpool.
Now, with a semifinal encounter against AS Roma after beating Premier League champions Manchester City in the last eight, he wants to emulate those Reds heroes who lifted the trophy five times before.
“I was a big Celtic fan growing up and my heroes were Henrik Larsson and Co,” Robertson told Arab News ahead of tonight’s first-leg clash 
at Anfield.
“But these heroes who have won the European Cup and Champions League for Liverpool, you have to look up to them — and we want to emulate them and hopefully get a winner’s medal too.
“The club’s won it five times and the history of the club has always been this, the Champions League, where the fans create a special atmosphere and the club challenges for the trophy. It would be unbelievable to be a part of that history.
“This is the highlight for me so far and an incredible feeling, but it just makes you hungry for more. I don’t want it to end.
“As a kid, you sit back and watch how great it would be to play in this competition, let alone in the final.
“I always used to go to Celtic and we didn’t progress very far in the Champions League, but the occasions at Parkhead were always unbelievable.
“The fans at Celtic are incredible, world renowned, but Anfield was unbelievable against Man City and we have another chance for them to create that same atmosphere and hopefully we can put in another great performance.”
Having beaten Pep Guardiola’s City so convincingly, 5-1 over two gripping games, Liverpool will start favorites against Roma.
That is despite the Italians upsetting Barcelona in the previous round with an epic 3-0 win in the second leg after a 4-1 loss at the Nou Camp.
But Robertson will take nothing for granted against a Roma side who last reached the final in 1984 where they were beaten by Liverpool in a penalty shootout at their Stadio Olimpico home.
“Barca are an unbelievable team,” added the Scotland left-back, 24. “But let’s not kid ourselves. For Roma to score three goals against Barcelona, that’s special.
“They’ve been unbelievable this season too in the Champions League and deserve to be in the semifinals. It will definitely not be an easy game.
“But once you get to the semis, the fear of who you are playing has gone because you know how good the teams are.
“It’s like you look forward to the possibility of playing in the final, that’s what drives you forward. We will have fire in our bellies because we are so close to getting there.”
Jurgen Klopp’s men will no doubt be looking to Mohamed Salah to conjure more magic against the club he left in the summer for £36.9 million ($51.5 million).
But Robertson insisted Liverpool are no one-man team and the Egyptian, crowned PFA Player of the Year on Sunday night after scoring 41 goals in an unforgettable campaign, epitomizes a team united and ambitious in their quest for glory.
“He’s just unbelievable,” said Robertson of the frontman.
“In the first half (of the second leg) against Man City we struggled to get him in the game and he wasn’t quite at it. But the second half he was different class and pops up with a goal to help us win it. That’s what he does.
“His goals have been incredible and long may that continue. He’s a great guy, so humble, and for someone who has done so much this season he’s so down to Earth.
“That’s credit to our squad because we don’t let anyone get ahead of themselves.
“Mo is no different, he’s a lovely person and stands for what we are as a team.”

 

HEART OF GOLD

Five years ago Andrew Robertson was playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football with Queen’s Park and earning extra money by selling concert tickets in the corporate offices at Hampden Park.
Last summer he suffered relegation from the Premier League with Hull City before Liverpool signed him for £10 million ($13.9 million).
In a career fraught with setbacks and hardships, he has been grateful, supporting foodbanks that help those in need.
“It’s all about giving something back to the less fortunate,” said Robertson.
“I’m in a fortunate position where I do a job I love and get paid well and it’s nice to give something back, especially in my hometown. I’ll always do that.
“It’s been a great journey for me in my career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. But I don’t forget where I came from. Maybe it is rare, but a lot more people are doing it now and I hope even more will.”