Almost immediately, speculation began about how such a massacre could have happened, and whether this was more than just a simple case of fan violence. Why did the police stand by and watch? Who switched off the stadium lights so soon after the attack started? Who locked the doors that the Ahly ultras might otherwise have left by? It didn’t take long before people started to draw their own conclusions–and many concluded the disaster was facilitated by the police and the army, even if state officials did not do the killing themselves.
“For me, security [officials] helped this happen,” says Osama Khairy, the soccer reporter. “I think it was a message from SCAF: ‘we will punish the ultras.’ But they just didn’t expect that so many would die.”
Seventy-four Ahly fans did die, and the consequences were far-reaching. The league was cancelled, and even when it returned a year later, it was played behind closed doors. Three players spontaneously retired, including Aboutreika.
Aboutreika’s retirement was exactly the sort of principled stance that Ahly fans revered him for. A philosophy graduate from Cairo University, Aboutreika had long been seen as a moral figure. In 2008, he ripped off his shirt after scoring to reveal a pro-Palestinian shirt underneath, in Arabic and in English: “Sympathize with Gaza.”
Ultras Ahlawy protest the Port Said killings. Photo by Jonathan Rashad
After Port Said, something changed among the ultras.
“I lost ten of my close friends at Port Said,” says Ahmed Radwan. “If you lose ten friends who you’ve eaten with and lived with, it’s such a shock. And you lose hope. You stop caring about who comes to power. You just think: I want to get back to my life.”
And so, according to Radwan, began a gradual process of disengagement from the wider political environment. The ultras still protest– their demonstrations outside Cairo’s High Court this month, calling for the release of some of their arrested colleagues, prove as much –but above all, says Radwan, they are focused simply on finding justice for friends killed in Port Said, and those injured during other assaults on the ultras.
After the Port Said massacre, there was a powerful desire for revenge against the police. And Ultras Ahlawy, the most passionate football fans in Egypt, felt there should be no more football. When Ahly scheduled a friendly last autumn, the fans asked the players not to take part. Only Aboutreika, who by then had been coaxed back from retirement, agreed to boycott, prompting a bitter rift between the rest of the players and their most ardent fans that has yet to heal.
As a manager, the whole situation was unknown territory.
Bradley says the players, many of whom went without pay while the league was suspended, were put in an impossible position. “They have to take care of their families,” he explains. “The players showed respect to the [victims'] families. Many of them gave money to a fund. But this is also their livelihood.”
As a manager, the whole situation was unknown territory. During international games, Bradley’s players had no supporters to gee them up, and with no domestic league they lacked match practice. “Playing games in empty stadiums is not what football’s about—a game without fans has no soul,” he says. “And yet when we prepare for the games, we say we can’t expect our energy to come from our supporters. We have to do it ourselves.”
There was one advantage for Bradley. For once, he had a chance to train with his players whenever he wanted, an enviable position for an international manager, and in the process, he says, the squad grew tighter: “That was the silver lining. We were still able to take advantage of the situation, even if in so many other ways it was not the best situation at all.”
At the same time, divisions across Egypt as a whole grew wider. In the middle of 2012, Egypt chose its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Many revolutionaries voted for Morsi–a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood–with clenched teeth. They didn’t like him, but he seemed marginally preferable to his opponent in the presidential run-off, Mubarak’s last prime minister. As a result, Morsi’s tenure was only going to work if he ruled by consensus, rather than playing to his Islamist support base. But by late January 2013, it was clear that he had chosen the latter path–and anger at his rule sparked another round of violent unrest.
A protester at the People’s Assembly headquarters in Cairo. Photo by Jonathan Rashad
The night before that violence began, I had arrived in Egypt for the first time to live and work. I had hoped to spend a few days finding a flat, sorting a press pass, and setting up a phone contract, but instead my very first experiences of Cairo involved wheezing on teargas and dodging stones hurled at the barricades.
It was amid this maelstrom that football also reared its head once more. By a quirk of fate, the sentencing of those accused of the Port Said massacre was scheduled for the day after unrest had broken out across the country. Over 70 Port Said residents and a handful of policemen faced charges carrying the death sentence.
The verdict could scarcely have been more politicized. If the sentences were too harsh, Port Said was likely to erupt in fury. Too lenient, and Ahly’s ultras threatened to wreak havoc in Cairo. They had shut down Cairo’s subway system earlier in the week of the judgment, and threatened far worse if the verdicts did not go their way.
Cairo could breathe easy: 21 Port Said men were sentenced to death.
As it happened, Cairo could breathe easy: 21 Port Said men were sentenced to death, prompting jubilation from Ahly fans gathered outside their central Cairo stadium. It was my third morning in Cairo, and I remember walking among them as they gathered from the early morning onwards. “Congratulations on your execution, Port Said,” read a sign held by Salha el-Deen, a fan surrounded by hundreds of young men singing songs, waving huge flags, beating drums, and setting off flares and fireworks.
But in Port Said, there was anger and chaos. The families of the condemned rejected the verdict and protested outside a prison. The city’s trigger-happy police started firing. A riot ensued. By the end of the weekend, over 40 Port Said residents were dead, twice the number sentenced to death in the first place. Morsi praised the police for their conduct and issued them with additional powers. Six months later, his response to the violence would be cited among the justifications for Morsi’s ouster.
“Morsi is the responsible one,” a Port Said fishmonger, whose friend died that weekend, told me. “The Egyptian people voted for him. And then he came on television, thanking the police who are killing us.” A footballing disaster had turned into a political crisis.
As 2013 rolled on, opposition to Morsi increased and culminated in four days of mass protests in late June and early July that led to his overthrow.
But surprisingly, Ultras Ahlawy appear to have had little official hand in Morsi’s demise. Some said they had been placated by the sentencing of the Port Said fans in January, and then again by another round of sentences meted out in March to both Port Said locals and two senior policemen. Others argued they had been left confused and alienated by the way the anti-Morsi movement embraced the police and the army, two institutions the ultras had for so long opposed.
Ahmed Radwan tells a different story. For Radwan, Ahly’s ultras were simply tired of political struggle and felt the battles they had fought since 2011 had largely been in vain. “We thought: we’d lost our friends in Tahrir and at Port Said, we fought against the police and the army–but it doesn’t seem like we are achieving the revolution’s goals. So we said: everyone is free to do what they want: if you want to support the army, you can go, if you want to support the Brotherhood, you can go. Our group is out of politics, it’s only for football. After three years, we need to go back to the stadiums.”
Ultras can still be seen as an organized force on the streets. This month groups from both Ahly and Zamalek protested against police brutality against their colleagues. But where they stand collectively on wider political issues is cloudier than ever.
“They are like Egyptians, they are divided,” says Osama Khairy. “They started with a few leaders, but now I don’t know. There are many leaders. It’s like Egypt. Everyone’s talking, no one’s listening, and no one person is representative.”
Bradley recommends his players read the writing of Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent female novelist who rejects both the Brotherhood and the army.
Even the national team harbors its differences. But whereas arguments between Brotherhood and army supporters elsewhere in Egypt have proved so bitter that political discussion has been banned from some schools and hospitals, Bob Bradley says his players have been able to put ideology behind them and unite for the sake of soccer.
“I get asked over and over: is your team divided?” says Bradley. The American largely stays out of political debates, though he recommends his players read the writing of Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent female novelist who rejects both the Brotherhood and the army.
“I say: not everybody agrees,” explains Bradley. “There are discussions when people give different opinions. But what’s different is that they respect the other guy. And when all is said and done, we understand that the responsibility we have as a team to get to the World Cup is still first and foremost.”
Some fans joke that Egypt’s political mayhem might die down if the fans could watch games in person more often.
That goal now seems all but out of reach. To reach next year’s world cup, Egypt must beat Ghana over a two-leg playoff. One of those legs is still to come, a match in Cairo on November 19. After a long period of games played in empty stadiums, the army may allow 30,000 supporters to attend. Some fans joke that Egypt’s political mayhem might die down if the fans could watch games in person more often. But the Ghana match is unlikely to cheer up anyone in Egypt. After losing to Ghana 6-1 in Kumasi, Ghana, last month, the Pharoahs need to score at least five goals against one of the meanest defenses on the continent.
The Kumasi defeat was a national humiliation. Pre-match high hopes soon gave way to fury, as fans blasted the team’s shambolic defending. In a game of huge importance, it looked as though the players had simply given up.
But one man escaped their wrath. Among the most painful aspects of the defeat was the realization that Mohamed Aboutreika, who will retire for what is likely to be the last time following the Club World Cup in Morocco, will never play for Egypt on football’s greatest stage, the World Cup (they have only qualified twice, once in 1934, and once in 1990).
As one distraught writer put it on the popular football website KingFut, “The only player I genuinely express my utmost deepest sorrow to is Mohamed Aboutreika.”
[Top image by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images]