Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

It was not about the venue

Only government intervention resolved a venue problem concerning the Cairo football derby. Inas Mazhar wonders how many fires are already overwhelmed officials supposed to extinguish

It was not about the venue
It was not about the venue
Al-Ahram Weekly

It was not because the match would see Zamalek confirming victory of their long-awaited league trophy. Nor was it because the defending champions Ahly would give up their favourite title to their arch-rivals. It was about the venue that would host the popular derby between the nation’s top giants Ahly and Zamalek.

Finally, it was decided to play the match in Borg Al-Arab Stadium in Alexandria at 8pm.

But to reach that understanding took several days of controversy played out between fans and officials in the media and social media. Only government intervention at a very high level saved the day.

Where the game between Egypt’s two powerhouse football clubs would be played sounded trivial but it developed into a huge controversy across the country, making it the leading news item, on a par with news about terrorism and the economy.

The row began days before the game and raised several question marks questioning the ability of Egyptian football officials to run the world’s most popular sport.

The Ahly and Zamalek match, in the 37th week of the domestic football league competition, was scheduled a month ago. It was to be held on 21 July in the city of peace, Sharm El-Sheikh. Surprisingly, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), decided to move the game to Al-Gouna Stadium instead for security reasons.

Being Ahly’s home match, the defending champions refused to play in Al-Gouna, citing the hot weather and the bumpy pitch. Because Al-Gouna does not have floodlights, the game was scheduled for 4:30pm under a sweltering sun.

Ahly instead proposed three other options: PetroSport, Suez Stadium and Sharm El-Sheikh. In a statement, Ahly threatened otherwise not to play the game. They said the first leg was played in Cairo and could be played there again. Ahly added that since the beginning of the competition they had selected the military Air Defence Stadium as a second go-to ground for their home matches.

The statement also explained that Ahly had played three of their home matches in Al-Gouna, Sharm El-Sheikh and Suez in light of security concerns but could no longer accept playing there in view of the match’s importance.

At the time of writing, Zamalek led second place Ahly by nine points with three games remaining for each. Zamalek needed to only tie with Ahly to win a league they have not won since 2004.

During that time, Zamalek had not beaten Ahly for more than eight years. Zamalek’s last win over Ahly was in May 2007 when the White Kinghts beat Ahly 2-0.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports and its Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz as well as EFA football officials had both failed to persuade Ahly to change their mind. The issue escalated and made headlines in both traditional and social media as the venue of the derby became the talk of the town. It then moved to another level — a tug of war evolved between EFA officials and fans of both clubs.

Following the Ahly statement on Sunday, the club trained anyway, on their own pitch in Al-Gezira. The football team was met by thousands of Ahly supporters, many of them called and Ultras, who invaded the club, got past security guards, and jumped from the gates and fences into the club to support the team in its training. Practice went incident free though there were reports of injuries from the mad dash to enter the stadium.

The issue worsened between Ahly Chairman Mahmoud Taher and Zamalek’s President Mortada Mansour and cheering them on, the fans of both clubs and the media apparently sometimes taking sides. It became personal.

The Zamalek side claimed Ahly wanted to withdraw to save face after just about losing this season’s national league competition. Ahly denied, saying they were determined to win the game just to mar Zamalek’s celebrations over a trophy they have not won in more than a decade.

Amid all the acrimony, the government was forced to act. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, a former chairman of the Arab Contractors Club, decided that the game was to be held as scheduled on Tuesday 21 July at the Military Stadium of Borg Al-Arab, in Alexandria.

Though the stadium can take up to 90,000 spectators, the game would be played behind closed doors, as has been the case for most football matches played in Egypt following the death of 72 fans in a 2012 league match in a soccer riot.

On Monday, Mansour issued a statement in which Zamalek thanked the prime minister, and the ministers of youth and sports and defence for containing the issue and moving the game to Borg Al-Arab. Mansour added that he had been in contact with top officials and that he suggested the new venue. The statement also accused the Ahly chairman and the club’s other officials of creating the mess with the aim of ruining the competition which was coming to an end in Zamalek’s favour.

The match was scheduled to kick off after Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, but the game had ramifications regardless of the result. The gap grew wider in the relationship between officials of the two clubs. The Ahly chairman flew to the UAE and was to miss the game from the stands. Officials from the two clubs were to be separated in the VIP box, and the EFA board was to boycott the match. And former EFA chairman Samir Zaher who has announced he will run again for the post, saw an opening, calling President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in an attempt to reconcile the two clubs.

Apparently, Egyptians have decided that any stand-off in any issue needs the mediating efforts of Al-Sisi himself to work as a peacemaker. The idea had worked before when Al-Sisi called on Mansour and TV presenter Ahmed Shobeir to bury the hatchet during his election campaign for the presidency.

It has been asked how many fires is the government supposed to extinguish and whether it should be involved in settling a football dispute in between fighting terrorism and dealing with the economy.

And has fanaticism of fans now infected officials who run the sport?

How would a nation so busy with a myriad of problems go forward if its government, up to the head of state, must intervene to solve a simple sports matter? Sports officials failed to resolve the issue, yet dream of hosting major sports events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

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