Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Beware the vacant seats

In 2013, sports violence moved outside the stadiums, leaving the arenas empty and the streets chaotic, Inas Mazhar reports

Ultras of Ahli
Ultras of Ahli
Al-Ahram Weekly

‘Sports can’t be played without fans. For sportsmen, a match or a tournament without fans is a wedding without guests’

— Khaled Mortagi

Football fans took to rioting in the streets of Cairo, leaving the stadiums behind. This made it difficult for the authorities to accept the return of spectators to the stadiums or to resume the national football league. Sports violence also saw a change in the road — from the street to the pitch, back to the street, then on to the political scene. Those U-turns raised questions as to whether sports groups, particularly the Ultras, are following political agendas.
Since the beginning of 2013, Ahli Ultras vented their anger several times since the Port Said massacre of the year before which left 74 people killed, mostly Ahli supporters, in a league game between Ahli and Masri. When the court announced the verdict of the killers in March this year, sending 21 to the gallows, the Ultras attacked the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) headquarters, robbing it before burning it. Apparently, such a severe penalty was not enough. At any rate, the EFA was refurbished and inaugurated anew in November.
Ahli Ultras had caused damage to the Air Defence Stadium in April in an African Champions League match against Leopards of Congo. As a result, the African Confederation fined Ahli LE20,000 while the stadium management banned Ahli from playing any games on their ground.
Ahli were then forced to played all their African matches in El Gouna Stadium behind closed doors. When the fans were allowed in once, they again caused violence after which El -Gouna Stadium refused to play host to any of Ahli’s matches. The continuous violence resulted in Ahli begging for a stadium to host the final of the Champions League. The Arab Contractors was the only club that took the risk. However, Ahli fans took to violence again before the match even began when more than 500 fans tried to invade the stadium without tickets, while others stormed through the Media Gate 2. And even those who were carrying tickets stormed into the media tribune forcing journalists to flee.
Earlier, dozens of fans belonging to Ahli Ultras besieged Cairo International Airport as they waited for the return of the Ahli handball team who had claimed the silver medal. After being detained for a week, the fans were released on the same day of the final of the African Champions League. The Ministry of Aviation, in charge of the airport, had retracted its accusation of any damage to the facility, leaving the prosecutor-general no choice but to release them. It was a gesture to Ahli fans to behave themselves during the final.
In 2013, Zamalek’s White Knights jumped into the fray and gained popularity that has been limited to the Ultras of Ahli. They too had their share of violence off the pitch. Zamalek’s Ultras made several appearances, the most significant being the invasion of a press conference for the former minister of sports Al-Amri Farouk in May. The conference was held at the Equestrian Hall in Cairo Indoor Stadium to discuss the new sports law. The White Knights were protesting against the minister, who they believed showed bias against their club, favouring instead Ahli, the club Farouk openly supports.
Later, they stormed the club’s headquarters in Giza following a demonstration in which they called for changing the club’s board of directors. The fans were angry because the board had failed to lead the club beyond the semi-final of the African Champions League and also failed to win the national league competition though they were leading at the half-way point. During their attempts to invade the club, clashes erupted between the White Knights and security forces in the nearby streets beside the club. The Knights damaged some buildings in the club when they stormed it. During the clashes, a member of the White Knights was killed and several were arrested.
Mamdouh Abbas, the Zamalek club chairman, refused to yield to the fans, saying the board was elected “by the real members of the club”. Abbas said he believed that the perpetrators were incited and funded by some into acts of violence. Later, Zamalek claimed the FA Cup competition.
Interestingly, the Ultras White Knights broke up a demonstration protesting against the forced closure of Tawfik Okasha’s Al-Faraeen television channel, thus expanding their activity to issues other than sports. The court verdict to close down the controversial station which is heavily pro-army, was taken during the era of the former president Mohamed Morsi who was brought down by the help of the army following nationwide demonstrations. The Ultras of Zamalek thus protested in front of the prosecutor-general’s office and the Supreme Judicial Court in downtown Cairo.
The White Knights attempted to follow in the footsteps of Ahli Ultras by using social media in delivering messages to the public. After every incident, they published statements justifying their actions. In the case of Okasha, their statement — “there is no place for slaves in the land of the free” — in which they claimed responsibility for the violence, received huge feedback with more than 6,000 comments and 2,500 shares.
The violence has had a big impact on the business of sports. “Sports can’t be played without fans. They are the ones who bring the vibes to the stands and allow the players to enjoy the atmosphere and the support as they compete,” said Khaled Mortagi, Ahli club board member. “For sportsmen, a match or a tournament without fans is a wedding without guests.The sport loses its taste and enthusiasm. This can’t continue forever. Still, violence has to come to an end first because it would be risky for all parties involved in the sports field,” Mortagi added.
According to Hisham Zayed, director of sports marketing at Al-Ahram Pyramids Advertising Agency, the advertising and marketing of sports is most affected and financially damaged by violence with losses of up to LE300 million worth of contracts of investment over three years. Pyramids is the biggest ads agency in the Middle East and Arab world and is the main agency for sports federations and clubs in Egypt.
“Since the 25 January Revolution of 2011 and the stoppage of sports after the violence that emerged, we lost LE100 million every year in sponsorship rights in the clubs and competitions. Ahli alone is worth a LE45 million contract a year as the most expensive club. Zamalek follows then the rest of the clubs and sports federations,” explained Zayed.
“There are no TV rights, and no revenues from ticket sales for the clubs because there are no competitions. But clubs are still paying players, technical staff and employees. Most of the clubs have had cuts but Ahli is suffering the most because it is the only one playing. They are still paying the players and salaries of all those involved. They were lucky they won the African Champions League — worth $1 million — the last two years to compensate for their loss.
“We are all affected. The business has collapsed. Some agencies and sponsors have gone bankrupt as they have small clubs. It is a chain. We as an advertising and marketing agency buy the rights of a club, then sell these rights to advertisers. Each party pays the other over instalments. The advertiser pays us, the agency, and we pay the club. Now, no one pays the other. In the first year of the revolution, we cut 25 per cent off the contract with Ahli and last year 50 per cent because the sponsor and advertiser are not paying us.”
Zayed admitted football is not the only sport affected by the violence. “Individual sports or the less popular ones are devastated. Basketball, the second most popular sport in Egypt, used to host the African Basketball Championship and business used to boom as the competition attracted spectators and advertisers. This is history. No one can take the risk and host such an event in Alexandria again after the violence which broke out before and during a local basketball match.”
Zayed confirmed that violence remains the main obstacle facing the sports business and that he was sceptical about when it will end and when sports will resume. “There is little hope in the return of the football league and its continuity. We do hope it will return but the atmosphere is not promising. It is not easy. We are going into a constitutional referendum, then elections. Half the season has already passed us by.”
Zayed said Egyptians have almost forgotten about Egyptian sports and have become huge fans of European leagues and championships. “We know the foreign players by heart now, better than our local players. All we can do now is watch and pray for a recovery of the Egyptian sports business,” Zayed added.
Sports media has also had its share of losses because of sports violence. “Sports journalism has been severely affected. There have been no stories during the past three years to fill the sports pages. Sports journalists are now covering news of sports lawsuits in the courts like the Port Said disaster or those affiliated to the Ultras violence in the streets and the stadiums,” said sports critic Ayman Badra, deputy editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper and head of the sports department of Al-Shorouk news website.
“Lawsuits from sports violence have attracted public opinion. It is now normal to find sports journalists reporting on cases from the trial to appeals to cassation. Of course this has affected the content of the sports pages which has turned into a page of court cases.
“Sports violence has also led to the closing down of private sports TV satellite channels Modern Sport, Modern Kora, Melody Sport and Zoom Sport. The Ultras who were not happy with several sports broadcasters stormed into the Media Production City into the studios of Modern Sport to force the channel’s management into cancelling two programmes of TV presenters Ahmed Shobeir and Medhat Shalabi. Other channels which were to be launched like CBC Sport and Al-Hayat Sport suspended their debuts until things calm down.
“Newspapers are suffering from the quality of work and of course the absence of advertisers. One of the leading sports tabloid newspapers, Akhbar Al-Riyada, dropped from 36 pages to 32 then down to 16 pages. It is now back to 24 pages.
“Reaction to sports violence from the perspective of journalists differs. Some fear those behind the violence so they pamper them which is evident in their writings, even if they disagree with their actions. Others who oppose the violence are clear about it and criticise the perpetrators and so are on their blacklist and risk being attacked by them,” Badra said.
This year, Egypt scored a perfect 18 points from six games in the World Cup African qualifiers despite playing all their home games behind closed doors for security reasons.
Before the second leg with Ghana in Egypt, Ghana more than once asked FIFA to have the game be played elsewhere for fear of the security situation in Egypt.
As for Ahli, they won the African Champions League despite playing most of their home games in the more secure El Gouna Stadium, without fans, and without floodlights, forcing them to play during the day time, which was very hot in summer and during Ramadan when the players were fasting.
Of course, reaching the last stage of the World Cup qualifiers, winning the Champions League, international and world achievements for karate, weightlifting and squash were done despite the cancellation of the league this year and in the midst of an often bloody revolution, particularly after Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president in July.
With only a few days to go before the New Year, sports violence continues and there are no indications it will end soon.

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