Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The people’s stadium

Inas Mazhar tells the story of Cairo International Stadium which has become an integral part of the nation’s social fabric

Al-Ahram Weekly

The 55-year-old Cairo International Stadium (Stad Al-Qahira Al-Dawli) is not just a sports venue. It is beyond that. It is one of the nation’s most significant landmarks, with its own image, pride and legacy. Just as the Pyramids and Sphinx have been witnesses to Egypt’s history for thousands of years, Cairo Stadium has also been a witness to more than five decades worth of joy and tears.

The stadium, formerly known as Nasser Stadium after the name of Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, is an Olympic-standard, multi-use stadium with an all-seater capacity of 74,100. It’s the foremost Olympic-standard facility befitting the role of Cairo as the centre of events in the region. It is also the 69th largest stadium in the world. Located in Nasr City, a suburb northeast of Cairo, it was inaugurated by Nasser and former Sudanese president Ibrahim Aboud on 23 July 1960. The opening also marked the celebrations of Egypt’s eighth anniversary of the July Revolution.

That day, nobody was happier than the Egyptian people. Not really because they were celebrating eight years since the 23 July Revolution but because they finally had a real stadium of their own in the capital. The most enthused were the 100,000 fans who joined the celebrations at Cairo Stadium which was, at that time, the biggest stadium in Africa and the Middle East.

Up until 2006 when the stadium was renovated, it held up to 120,000 spectators. That was because only VIP and first-class sections had seats while the rest of the stadium consisted of cement benches. The country was impressed by the stadium’s striking facilities, which included an electronic Arabic-English scoreboard — the first in the world — and four floodlight towers that consumed as much electricity as is used in a provincial city.

Building such a gigantic stadium was considered a valuable gift to the public, and was seen by intellectuals and the elite as part of a plan envisioned by the July Revolution leaders who sought to play a pioneering role in the region.

To build such a stadium, the government hired Germany’s world famous architect Werner March, who was renowned for designing top-class sports facilities, to design what was expected to be the region’s most fabulous sports arena. Modelled on the Berlin Olympic Stadium, two million square metres were allocated to Cairo Stadium in the then new suburb of Nasr City. It took March almost three years to build the stadium at a cost of around LE3 million, a huge amount of money by the standards of the 1960s.

Years after Nasser died in 1970, the name of the stadium was changed to Cairo International Stadium. Since then the venue has hosted several international tournaments, such as the Africa Cup of Nations in 1974, 1986 and 2006 and the FIFA U-17 and FIFA U-20 in 1997 and 2009 respectively.

And because the stadium was built by the government, it has remained its property since. However, in April 2008, there was an attempt by the government to privatise the stadium. Such a proposal was put to Egypt’s parliament but because it was the people’s stadium, parliament turned the proposal down, according to MP Mohamed Khalil Kwaitah, affiliated with the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP).

“The government’s proposal is totally rejected because Cairo International Stadium is one of Egypt’s landmarks, built by the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser,” Kwaitah told the media at the time, describing the stadium as a “national treasure and that the idea of selling a national treasure was unacceptable regardless of the amount of money offered in return”.

Kwaitah had said then that if the stadium was not well managed by qualified people, then it would be better to look for another crew “capable of running the treasure” and turning it into a profitable venue. A suggestion that the government rent the stadium on a long-term contract to a private company to supervise it was also on the cards, as long as the stadium remained Egyptian property.

However, that never transpired.

Cairo International Stadium has been home to the football national team and the sport’s two biggest football powerhouses in Egypt and the continent: Ahly and Zamalek. Before the 1960s, the Egyptian arch-rivals used to play on their own 15,000-seater stadiums; Mokhtar Al-Teitsh for Ahly and Helmi Zamoura for Zamalek. Both mini-stadiums are located within the clubs’ premises. But, as the popularity of the two giants grew, Cairo Stadium became their home while their clubs became their training grounds. Up until today, when Ahly and Zamalek play their derbies, Cairo Stadium is always a full house.

For decades, the stadium won the admiration of visiting teams and their supporters. In many a game, the hugeness of the spectators in the stands played a decisive role in shaking the confidence of the visiting teams, leading to a victory by the home team most times.

On a few occasions, the home teams lost despite the vociferous crowds.

On the grounds of Cairo International Stadium, Egypt’s football stars were born: Saleh Selim, Hamada Imam, Mahmoud Al-Khatib, Hassan Shehata, Farouk Gaafar, Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan, Mohamed Abu Treika and Mido, among many others. The world famous that have graced its grass include Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Messi, Ronaldino, Gerd Muller, Zineddine Zidane, Di Stefano, Eusebio, Puskas, Bobby Moore, Geoffrey Hurst, Stanley Matthews, Peter Shilton and Gabriel Batistuta. The young have written their certificates of success at Cairo Stadium in major African championships and FIFA junior and youth World Cups. Egyptians got to see these starlets before the world later recognised them. And Egyptians hosted famous clubs Barcelona, Real Madrid, West Ham, Bayern Munich, Benfica and AS Roma, all with their full squads.

People can still remember key dates like the African Champions Cup final in 1970 between Egypt’s Ismaili and TP Engelbert of then Zaire, which Ismaili eventually won 3-1, the first Egyptian team to win the African title, now called the Champions League. More than 120,000 spectators, let alone the 40,000 who could not enter, packed the stadium to support the coastal team which had been forced to leave their city because of the 1967 war against Israel. The unprecedented number of roaring fans caused the hearts of the visiting team, who were then the reigning African champions, to sink into their boots.

And fans will never forget the 1986 Africa Cup of Nations which saw the Pharaohs winning the cup for the fourth time in their history with a team that included giants Taher Abu Zeid, Shawki Gharib, Mustafa Abdou and Ahmed Shobeir.

But it was the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations that will remain etched in memory mostly because it was the event that created a dynasty.

The team would go on to win two more African titles. The three in a row was a record that will be difficult to break.

After several impressive victories over the continents top teams in the 2006 edition, the Pharaohs, deservingly, claimed their fifth title.

The three-week event set a new record in spectator attendance. And for the first time, Cairo Stadium saw families coming together to support Egypt. Women no more watched the games only on TV. They came to the stadium, surprisingly representing 60 per cent of the attendance at the tournament.

Before the tournament, Cairo Stadium began to draw criticism from the public, media and some visiting teams. It was a new millennium and new, super stadiums were cropping up around the world. Complaints included the pitch and the shabby concrete benches in the second and third-class stands. Furthermore, as third and fourth-generation stadiums began to take shape, and as most of the world’s state-of-the-art football stadiums made the switch to all-seater venues, along with modern, clean and safety conscious facilities, the need for a drastic refurbishment and make-over became more pressing.

So, renovation on Cairo Stadium started in 2004, in time to meet the standards of CAF to host the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006. 

Over a two-year period, new grass was planted and a state-of-the-art electrical system was installed. The concrete seating made way for 74,500 plastic seats in all the stands. Two huge electronic scoreboards were installed to display footage and results of other games being played at the same time. VIP tribunes and five-star lounges and terraces as well as fully equipped media centres and conference rooms for more than 300 journalists were also built. New electronic gates replaced the old entry and exit gates and a new ticketing system was adopted to facilitate the process. Monitoring cameras connected to a control room were implemented to spot troublemakers and guide security to them. The overhaul cost: LE150 million.

In 2008, there was more revamping, this time because Egypt was to host a bigger event — FIFA’s second major competition, the 2009 U-20 World Cup. FIFA requirements differed from CAF. So, again Cairo Stadium had another face-lift that included the pitch, dressing rooms, exits, seats and the media tribune which was moved to the other side of the stadium.

But Cairo Stadium is not only the home for players, clubs and national teams, but fans as well. Without them, there would be no spirit to the beautiful game. Without the fans and their enthusiastic support, football loses its main purpose -- entertaining fans. Stadiums become gloomy and deserted, like a wedding without guests.

For more than five decades, Cairo Stadium has been home to some loyal fans, especially the Ultras of Ahly and Zamalek, who reserve parts of the stands solely for themselves; the third right  is for Zamalek and the third left for Ahly. They thus promoted themselves from guests to residents. The Ultras have, in the last four years, taken another route by joining political life and participating in demonstrations, many of them violent, particularly after the start of the 2011 January Revolution. In this regard, they were supported by some and chastised by others. The Ultras were the fuel that ignited the stands with enthusiastic support, but which later produced fire. Incidents like the disaster of the Port Said Stadium in 2012 which saw 72 fans killed, and the Air Defence Stadium which left 22 people killed in a stampede earlier this year wrecked Egypt’s football name.

Still, despite the tragedies, nobody can deny that the Ultras brought the vibe to the stadiums, especially Cairo Stadium.

Cairo Stadium had its share of controversial incidents. When Egypt was playing Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier, a stone thrown from the stands cost Egypt a berth at the 1994 World Cup. No one was hurt, but FIFA ruled a repeat of the game on neutral ground.

The match was replayed in France and Egypt never made it to the World Cup finals.

During a local match between Ahly and Zamalek in 1971, the fans rioted in the stadium and then ran outside, smashing shops and setting passenger cars on fire. And in the decisive game of the 2014 Confederation Cup, which was supposed to be closed to the public for security reasons, fans invaded the stadium early in the morning before security arrived at the scene. CAF threatened to cancel the game so security kicked the invaders out.

Actually, since 2011, most games in Cairo Stadium, home and international, have been played behind closed doors for security purposes. The result: empty stands and a deserted and soulless stadium.

Today, Cairo Stadium is a huge Olympic sports village with three football training pitches, a four-arena indoor complex, an open air and indoor swimming complex, a hockey stadium, an equestrian arena and a cycling track.

Cairo International Stadium is not just a venue for sports. For years it has been hosting the July Revolution celebrations, collective wedding ceremonies, music and theatre concerts and productions, conferences, sports festivals and even peace marches. The stadium has become an essential, vital and precious part of the country in the heart of the capital.

But with no football or its fans, it cannot survive. Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel-Aziz is optimistic about bringing the fans back to all the stadiums. Until that time comes, most games are played in the Air Defence Stadium, Petrojet, the new Sharm El-Sheikh Stadium and Borg Al-Arab Stadium.

Cairo Stadium, though, remains the most famous. It is hoped that in 2016, football players from all over will once again traverse its hallowed grounds with fans in attendance.

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