Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Fatal football

The sport that has long been a source of joy for Egyptians has brought only sorrow and grief as the nation mourns the death of 22 football fans.
Inas Mazhar reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s domestic football league season was suspended indefinitely after 22 fans died and more than 40 were injured in clashes that broke out ahead of a league match on Sunday at the Military Air Defence Stadium in the Fifth Settlement in New Cairo.

The decision was taken by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb after a meeting with the ministers of interior, health and youth and sports.

The entire nation mourned the victims. Official statements were issued by the presidency, the Cabinet and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for an immediate investigation into the deaths. He also emphasised finding means to prevent the repetition of such incidents, as well as ensuring the safety and security of Egyptian citizens.

The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) announced a three-day mourning period and allocated LE25,000 to the families of each victim. Sports clubs also mourned the victims of the match.

On Monday, FIFA President Joseph Blatter sent a letter of condolence to Gamal Allam, president of the EFA, following the tragic incident. Blatter also extended an offer of support to the EFA, adding that FIFA was ready to help in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“I would like to express my deepest condolences to the Egyptian football community for the tragic events that occurred at the Sunday match in Cairo between Zamalek and ENPPI,” Blatter wrote.

“My thoughts and sympathies are with the families of all those who have lost their lives yesterday evening. It is so sad that a game of football, which should be the scene of joy and positive emotions, should be overshadowed in this way.

“We await the results of the investigation into this tragedy and are ready to provide the Egyptian Football Association with any support they may need in dealing with the aftermath of this event,” Blatter added.

According to the Ministry of Interior and the office of the prosecutor-general, the deaths resulted from suffocation from tear gas and a subsequent stampede. Forensics confirmed that none of the dead were shot either by bullets or bird shot, as was claimed in several reports.

Sunday’s tragedy makes it the second biggest disaster in Egyptian sports history. The Port Said Stadium riot of three years ago, in February 2012, killed 74 spectators inside the stadium following a local league match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry.

Since then, the domestic competition has been held on and off, almost always behind closed doors. On rare occasions, fans were allowed in.

Sunday marked the 20th week of the season, the midway point of the soccer schedule. The first half of this season was restricted to games without spectators.

It had been earlier agreed that a limited number of fans, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000, would be allowed to enter certain matches in the second half of the season.

According to the agreement reached between the Ministry of Interior and the Egyptian Football Association, only ticket holders would be allowed in. The home team would be responsible for distributing the tickets.

On Sunday, fans with tickets entered the stadium hours before the kick-off. Thousands of Zamalek Ultras, or White Knights, tried to enter the stadium without tickets. When police prevented them, clashes broke out between the two sides.

Organisers were forced to delay the kick-off for two hours when angry fans unable to enter the stadium lay down on the road to prevent the Zamalek team bus from entering the stadium. Security forces used tear gas to disperse the crowds while the players entered the stadium in armoured vehicles.

Some fans died of suffocation while others from a stampede when they tried to enter the stadium through a narrow entrance passage.

Surprisingly, the match was played in its entirety, although the organisers, players and the referee have since insisted they were unaware of the deaths outside. They said club President Mortada Mansour had told them it was all right to play the match.

Mahmoud Al-Banna, the match referee, also said on TV on Monday that he did not know there were victims in front of the stadium prior to the start of the match, and that had he known he would have stopped the match.

The team’s players have decided to donate to the families of the victims.

But defender Omar Gaber apparently knew what was happening outside the stadium and refused to play the match. The player is on very good terms with the Ultras of Zamalek and was, at the same time, involved in a bitter dispute with Mansour three months ago because of his continuous support for the Ultras.

Following the match, Mansour announced on TV that Gaber will no longer be playing for the club. “We don’t want another Abu Treika,” Mansour said, referring to Al-Ahly’s retired star who refused to play in the Super Cup in 2012 in support of the victims of the Port Said disaster of 2012.

On Monday, it was officially announced by the club that it was terminating Gaber’s three-year contract, though it had been renewed only three days before the ill-fated Zamalek-ENPPI match.

Zamalek’s new Brazilian coach, Jorvan Vieira, was in the stadium, watching his first Zamalek match after having arrived in Egypt just last week. The 61-year-old coached Zamalek from 2012 to 2013.

According to Mansour, Vieira had asked about the thick smoke that filled the stadium. Mansour told TV talk show host Ahmed Moussa that he had told the coach, “The smoke is coming from some factories in the area,” for fear Vieira might panic if he knew the real reason.

With the league now suspended, Vieira’s future with the team remains uncertain. He has agreed to remain for two weeks to see how things progress and whether the league will resume.

The decision to suspend the national league indefinitely was not without controversy. Some agree it was the right thing to do, at least for the time being. “The league has to be suspended to calm things down. And when it resumes it should be held without fans,” sports critic Hassan Al-Mistikawi said.

Others, though, felt the suspension sends the wrong message to the world — that Egypt is unstable. Opponents of the suspension believe the league should resume — but behind closed doors — or else the business of football will once again collapse. Some clubs went bankrupt after the January 2011 Revolution, which twice forced the cancellation of the league altogether.

Mohamed Shiha, a player agent, said he was disappointed by the decision to suspend. “It would be a real disaster to the football business. Everyone in the field will be once again affected. We were glad with the return of the league and the business, which started flourishing again. But this decision has put an end to it. I hope it won’t last and will be only temporary,” said Shiha, who is also involved in sports marketing.

Sports TV presenter and former goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir called for a law on stadium riots to be passed. Sports critic Osama Deabeas wrote that all are to be blamed for what he dubbed the “Air Defence masacre.” Deabes said the Ultras, a weak EFA and the media are all responsible for the loss of the 22 young lives.

Social media had a sleepless night debating the deadly incident and its aftermath. Facebook and Twitter were the pitches on which users clashed in long, mostly frustrating arguments between supporters of the police and those sympathising with the Ultras and those who died.

Regardless of who is to blame for the Air Defence incident, several observers said that in the end, human beings had lost their lives and that it didn’t matter whether they were fans or policemen.

There was also unanimity that something has to be done to stop the bloodshed in Egyptian stadiums and to ensure the safety and security of everyone in the venues.

For the record, the two teams drew 1-1, maintaining Zamalek’s lead of the league which still has 18 weeks to go — if it resumes.

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