Opinionista Khadija Patel 3 February 2012

The night football died

“They say football's a matter of life and death – but it's more important than that,” Liverpool's Bill Shankly famously quipped long ago. We still don’t know exactly what happened at the Port Said stadium that cost 73 football lovers their lives. Whatever it was, it was not football. “Football can go to hell if this is the situation,” Mohamed Aboutrika, 'the smiling assassin', Al Ahly’s star playmaker said afterward. To hell with football indeed: Aboutrika announced his retirement from football on Thursday evening.

I belong to a most curious species, that sometimes admired, sometimes reviled people known as Liverpool fans. I’ve never actually set foot in Liverpool. I’m too young to have witnessed the club’s greatest triumphs and despite a rigorous study in dialectology, the Scouser tongue could as well be a whole other language. Still, I am a Liverpool fan, a long-suffering Liverpool fan. I’ve fended off the Manchester United bullies at school, who taunted their way around the playground, compounding the ignominy of the mediocrity we seemed never to be able to shake off. Yet very few of these kids brandishing Manchester United paraphernalia like a religious dress and mourning Eric Cantona’s retirement like a family death, had set foot in their own Theatre of Dreams either. Somewhere between the idiocy of youth and an unadulterated love for the game, we became consumed by a whole culture. Never mind we were Indian kids, holding on for dear life in the southern-most part of Africa, English football became a part of who we were.

We live our lives vicariously through our teams – however crappy they are. Their triumphs – or in my case – their perennial disappointments, become our own. They are our tribes, exclusive social groups that give us meaning. They define our position in society. They give us a sense of belonging in a world moving too indifferently to lend a sense of belonging.

And there are few places where this tribalism is more visceral than in a match between Liverpool and Manchester United. So charged was the atmosphere between the two teams in the run up to the latest instalment of this rivalry that United manager Alex Ferguson sent a letter to fans travelling to Anfield to, well, behave themselves.

It was just a game of football.

And it was football that took the ‘ultra’ fans from Cairo’s Al-Ahly club to their long time rivals, Port Said’s Masry. They were soundly beaten 3-1, but before they could return to Cairo, disaster struck. Masry’s fans were buoyed by the victory and somehow found the gates to pitch opened. The jubilant home crowd streamed onto the pitch, viciously attacking the Al-Ahly team. Somehow, the cordon of police had parted to allow pandemonium through.  Within hours, the death toll stood at 74. Aggrieved families, angry ultras and shocked Egyptians, unable to understand how the tragedy unfolded, are convinced that this was not a simple case of football violence gone out of hand.

As fans tried to escape the marauding mob wielding knives and swords, they found the stadium’s exit gates closed. Al-Ahly fans were thrown from the stands. The ensuing chaos is being described as “Hillsborough-like”, evoking the memory of the human crush that led to the death of 96 Liverpool fans in 1989. Outnumbered police stood by, docile, as almost 1,000 people were injured in the crush.

It was not just a game of football.

Something more insidious is brewing beneath the surface of revolutionary Egypt. As the military junta rush to quell protest after protest, a vacuum of security has engulfed the country. Some say the police have been too demoralised by their defeat in the revolution to actually pitch up to work. And while a surge in crime is reported in some areas of Egypt, in others, the lack of security has had other consequences.

In regions like the North Sinai, the lack of security has led to a fresh flourish of traditional tribalism. Before the revolution, the North Sinai saw an escalating conflict between historical tribalism and the might of the security forces; but with security gone, tribalism – and tribal violence – has prevailed. Reconciling this trend towards tribalism with the demands of state security has led to political uncertainty.

And from tribal societies to the tribalism of football, Egyptians have hunkered down within these tribes. The ultras, the most dedicated supporters of football clubs, have been especially vocal. But instead of glorifying their football team, their street art now honour those who were killed during the revolution and send out anti-regime messages to keep the revolution alive.

At the height of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak last year, the Ahly Ultras teamed up with their bitter rivals from across towns – Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights – and were crucial to the securing of Tahrir Square as the epicentre of the revolution.

In a repressive society, where political dissent was quashed and political organisation often criminalised, the large gatherings of people in Tahrir Square against Mubarak missed organisation. Two groups however did have those organisational knowhow, the Muslim Brotherhood and soccer fans. In iron-fisted Arab countries, religion and football are the only vents available to people seeking comfort from the harshness of their reality. They combine as a compelling opiate for the people, so it’s little wonder then that Islamist groups and the ultras have been best placed to take on dictatorship.

The ultras were undaunted by Mubarak’s security forces. Their presence – with the moral support they provided through their loud, sometimes funny and occasionally obscene anti-government chants, but also their courage when it came to fending off violent policemen – could make or break a protest, Egyptian writer Mohamed El-Dahshan says. They rankle too at being called hooligans. Theirs is a whole other way of life, a subculture established in Egyptian society, with its own rules, music and art – a tribe.

It is difficult to shake off the suspicion that the violence in Port Said on Wednesday night was engineered to teach a painful lesson to the ultras – and with them the other segments of Egyptian society calling for the military government to step aside. It could very well be that the military have simply taken advantage of this swelling tribalism and simply stood aside when rival tribes decided to take on each other.

It just isn’t football. Not anymore. DM


Read more:

  • The Ultras White Knights: Football hooliganism or social movement? in Daily News Egypt.
  • Ultras football fans inspired by Egypt’s ongoing revolution create pop culture on ahramonline.
  • Streetbook How Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring in Technology Review.
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