Where goes the Egyptian game? After a forced one-year break, the national championship resumes. But the consequences of the Port Said tragedy loom large, reports James Montague.

Author:Montague, James
Position:2013 CUP OF NATIONS REVIEW - Al-Ahly soccer team
 
FREE EXCERPT

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 halftime, 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...

To continue reading

REQUEST YOUR TRIAL