5 - 11 August 1999
Issue No. 441
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A night of betrayalBy Tarek Atia
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Focus Interview Features Travel Living Sports Time Out Chronicles People Cartoons Letters
WE VENTURE out from the Al-Ahram building just as the match is starting, at 2.00am. Our first stops are the two Hilton hotels in Tahrir. They are full of our neighbours from the Gulf, but they aren't watching the match, even though it's the Saudis who are playing. At Le Pasha Nile boat, it's a different story. The pizzeria on the lower deck with the big screen is packed, and there are dozens of straggling shabab drenched in cologne and mousse milling around outside the latticed fence, aching for a peek.
"What's the score?" someone asks.
A young Saudi pipes in, taunting "We scored one on you!" quite loudly.
"La t'satil," warns his friend. "Don't go too far..."
It's mostly Saudis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arabs here, and the manager tells the ones who are not occupying the LE50 minimum charge seats to disperse.
WE HEAD for Midan Libnan in Mohandessin. On the way, on 26 July Street in Zamalek, there's a crowd in front of a small coffee shop. Turns out the owner just got ART -- he's installing it this minute. People have been waiting since midnight, and it's now 2.30. The match has been on for half an hour.
The owner, with the help of a representative from the company, is playing with the de-scrambler, trying to get it to work. He's hooked the thing up to a 13-inch TV on the curb, and it keeps switching between the ART logo and a programmable instruction screen that flashes the words "Insert your smart card now" much to the disappointment of the crowd. He's got a smart card, but it's just not working for now. People start getting fed up. "He was making progress before," a young man sitting on a red plastic chair in the front row says to a friend.
The second he can get the decoder working, the coffeehouse's value will go up faster than a hot stock.
Even though they have no idea what the score is, or that Egypt is losing, the bored, frustrated crowd at the coffee shop jump into the street and start taunting the occupants of a luxurious jeep caught in traffic in front of the Zamalek Theatre, where people are just coming out of Mohamed Heneidi's play. They assume they are Saudis.
"5-1! 5-1!" they say.
BY THE TIME we get to Midan Libnan, it's 2-0 Saudi. No one can believe that the always so kind Hazem Imam has already gotten a red card. And so has Abdel-Sattar. So we're playing with nine. The chic outdoor café/Lebanese restaurant is subdued. The kerb in front of it is packed. So is the street and the footpath on the other side. This place doesn't mind if the non-paying crowds linger, and the crowd doesn't seem to mind if this is all they get: watching a 25-inch screen from up to 100 feet away.
People, people everywhere, and not a goal in sight... Images from a crazy Cairo night: The throng in Bulaq Al-Dakrour; the sad donkey in front of the Mohandessin electronics store; happy Arabs on the floating boat in Zamalek; the unlucky coffeeshop that couldn't get the decoder to work; the crowds craning to catch a glimpse of the defeat; and the aftermath: raising the flag in spite of everything
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi and Salah Ibrahim
It's half-time, and Coach Gohari is in trouble. "Maybe he should pull a Farouk Gaafar," someone jokes, referring to the infamous forfeit move made by the Zamalek coach during the big game with Ahli when two of his players got red cards.
At Maroush it's LE20 minimum charge, and shisha, of the apple variety, is de rigueur, as are drinks and snacks. The ads on the TV, even though it's on ART, seem to be targeting this wealthy segment of Egyptian society. Subdivisions in the desert suburbs, fancy cars, etc.
AT 3.00AM, the second half starts and we head down the street. It's like the twilight zone. Everything's asleep, but then there are pockets where huge crowds suddenly appear. All of a sudden you'll see two ladies and a man standing in the bed of a pickup truck on the other side of the street from a Mohandessin electronics store.
The owner was nice enough to leave his wide-screen TV on -- and there are five rows of people sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle in front of the storefront. Behind them are at least another 20 rows of standing people. In the crowd, and besides the two men standing on the roof of their taxi, there's a young boy with a donkey. Straight out of a story by Tewfik El-Hakim, someone tells Khaled, the photographer, just as Saudi scores another goal: "Take a picture of the donkey while he's sad."
A truck passes by and honks. "Shut up," someone says. Tension is running high. "Look at this... It's embarrassing. Are they planning on getting a goal or what?"
WE TAKE a bridge at the end of Gam'at Al-Duwal, then a left, and just like that we're in an entirely different world. There are at least ten thousand people in the street. The crowd is never-ending. There is no room for the cars and microbuses to pass through this major thoroughfare. The focus of the crowd's attention is a wall-sized projection screen, set up on the third floor of what appears to be a very large kushari restaurant. We are at Awil Mazlaqan Nahia, Bulaq Al-Dakrour, and the street is so crowded that someone says, "It's like the People's Republic of China here!" There are people on the street, on the train tracks and in the hills beyond.
Egypt scores a goal. There's a roar. A general feeling of hope surges -- dim, but still there. But then the reality of the match comes raining in. Two more Saudi goals, one more red card for us.
Meaning 5-1. 5-1. The Zamalek taunts came true, but in reverse.
El-Megahid Masri takes off his shirt in disgust at the defeat and waves it around. "This team shouldn't travel anymore. They should just stay home," he says. "It has to be said," says a friend of Megahid's before they both jump into a slowly-passing microbus: "1 2 3, $#*! the ART."
TAHA ALSO has something to say: "We were, like any ordinary citizens, going in to watch the match. For money. It's the first time I've ever heard of this 'pay to watch a match' idea before. Anyway, we went to this elementary school we don't know the name of, where there's a coffeehouse, I'm not sure whether they're renting it or not. And we went in like anyone else, each person LE5. We sat down. It was about 1.15, 1.30. We were getting panicky. It got to be 2.00. The TV started working, but just ghosts, like a negative, no sound. A half hour went by, and it seems they started worrying about their equipment, so they turned out the lights. We went out, and asked for our money back... We said, you didn't show the match. They said, there's no money. We realised we had been swindled, so we tried to get our money back. They all pulled out their switchblades, and the belts, and I don't know what else, and they all started running after us... It's baltaga [thuggery]... Bad manners. What, were they renting that school's courtyard? Were they paying off the night watchman? Who were they renting it from exactly? That's all I want to say."
Was it all about being conned? By the coffeehouse, the referee, the team, the coach, the night itself? "Ask the TV people," one man shouted. "Ask them why we've had to spend all night in the streets, looking for a place to watch the game."
The people in the crowd, those who didn't pay, were most disappointed about standing there for five hours only to see the team lose. It was nearly dawn: had we won, everything would have been forgotten, and these crowds would have gone nuts. It would have been a wedding procession, as someone said. The LE5 customers of Kafeteria El-Basha in Ard Al-Liwa would have been feeling smug, not the LE50 Saudis who filled up Le Pasha in Zamalek.
And it's precisely because we lost 5-1 instead of winning 5-1, and, had to deal with the fact that the match wasn't on good old normal free TV that things started going a little haywire at 4.00am last Thursday night.
GAM'AT AL-DUWAL: packed. People are running everywhere. It's a mob scene just like the one in Bulaq Al-Dakrour, but this one is centred in front of a hotel where a lot of Gulf Arabs stay.
"They're harassing some Saudis," people are saying to each other, rushing in crowds toward the goal. People have been waiting for the Saudis, who hang out here, to show any sign of gloating at the victory. They're in Egypt, after all. To prove it the mob starts chanting "Masr, Masr" and waving the flag.
The police cars start arriving quickly, from every side street around. Apparently a Saudi guy in a Mercedes was acting uppity, so some Egyptians started attacking his car. He sped off, and that's what started the whole thing. The security presence is now heavy, and the police are telling the cars and groups of shabab to move on.
"It's not the Saudis' fault," says one young man to his friend as they walk away from the fray.
"Yeah, we had three players kicked out. No defence. No goalie. All in all, a bad day."
A Saudi in a rental car eases up in front of the hotel. "Is it safe to come out?" he asks a police officer.
"Yes, it's safe, park the car, sir."
TWO DAYS later, I stopped by that Zamalek coffeehouse whose owner was trying to install ART that fateful Thursday night. I wondered how it was going for him: now that Egypt has been disqualified, can the tournament still bring in enough of a crowd to make his risky new investment worthwhile? He was optimistic, but it was clear he felt he had made a mistake in purchasing the dish in the first place (which required an outlay of LE2,200, and will keep pursuing the coffeehouse owner in the form of monthly instalments to the tune of LE115), but also in acquiring it at such a late stage.
As the tournament continued to unfold, though, he might have had a chance of recouping his investment. At least until Monday night, football fans continued to pack the coffeehouses -- in the hope that Saudi Arabia would lose.
They weren't disappointed.