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Silent soccer
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 11 - 2017

When will the ‘ooohs' and ‘aaahs' once again reverberate in Egypt's now silent stadiums?
Don't be fooled by the 60,000 or 70,000 or 80,000-plus fans who have jam-packed several recent international and club games. The matches have all been played in one stadium in Alexandria under the watchful eye of FIFA, world football's governing body, and CAF, the African federation. Both had demanded that spectators be present for these games, as stipulated in their regulations.
But what now, after Egypt qualified for the 2018 World Cup and the African Champions League is one match away from conclusion? What remains are the domestic league and cup fixtures. Will the crowds be allowed in?
For the past five years, the masses have been barred from going to games, starting from that fateful day, 2 February 2012 when 74 spectators, mostly Ahly supporters, were killed in one of history's bloodiest football riots.
What started out as a normal league game in Port Said, in which hosts Masri inflicted a rare 3-1 defeat on Ahly, fans of the winning team surged onto the field, not to celebrate but to chase retreating Ahly supporters.
The first few scenes were broadcast live. What followed out of sight of television cameras transpired in the stadium's hallways and terraces. The years have not dimmed the terrifying scenes that belied belief: survivors and witnesses described hundreds of Ahly fans, some as young as 14, fleeing into a long narrow exit corridor, only to be crushed against a locked gate, their rivals attacking from behind reportedly with knives, clubs, stones, glass bottles and even swords, any makeshift weapon they could get their hands on. Not less than 1,000 people were injured.
People fell or were hurled from the bleachers. Fresh blood was splattered on several seats. Shoes were strewn everywhere. At the height of the disturbances, rioting fans fired flares straight into the Ahly crowd. Mysteriously, at the exact moment of mayhem, the stadium's floodlights were switched off.
In all its grisliness, that's what happened. Why it happened is not nearly as clear.
Some Ahly fans hung banners making fun of Masri supporters, apparently provoking the local fans to riot despite their victory.
The general feeling, though, is that a sign insulting supporters of the home team was simply not enough. It could have been capricious, incompetent police undermanned and overwhelmed by the situation. Possibly under-strength police ever since they were chased off the streets in the revolution a year earlier and had since kept a much lower profile. Or a police unable to manage crowds, fearing they would be vilified or a police which had lost the respect of Egyptians who no longer feared the force, or poorly paid and poorly trained riot police who failed to keep apart two sets of football fans with a history of violence and mutual hatred.
But that was then, when there was a revolution and the country was in chaos.
The police are back on the streets in full force. But they can be heavy-handed, at great cost. No sooner had league officials decided to bring back the fans bit by bit when disaster struck again, this time in 2015 when 28 football fans died in a confrontation with the police at the gates of 30 June Stadium during a league match between Cairo clubs Zamalek and Enppi. Most of the dead suffocated when the crowd stampeded after police used tear gas to clear the fans trying to force their way into the stadium. Egypt's police need to be better trained on crowd control to avoid a similar tragedy if and when the stadiums start to fill up.
Also, whereas things have gotten back to normal in the country, justice was never served in Port Said. Although at least 35 people, including police officers, were given jail sentences of up to 15 years for their role in the massacre, not a single one of the 10 defendants sentenced to death has been executed.
Without major deterrence, the fear must be that such thuggery will return to Egyptian terraces.
And Masri never got what should have come to them. In the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985 when 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death by marauding supporters of England's Liverpool during a European Cup final, all English football clubs were subsequently banned by UEFA from all European competition for five years. No punishment ever befell Masri; it was not even demoted to the second division. Again, if no punitive measures are taken against a culprit club after it literally gets away with murder, what should be expected except fans returning from matches in body bags?
There are moves to allow spectators back onto the terraces. Last week, Egyptian Sports Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz gave the green light for powerhouses Ahly and Zamalek to play their Premier League games at Cairo Stadium. The stadium is being renovated with regards to security measures, including the gates and surveillance cameras. It seems very likely that changes will be made but there is no underestimating the risk. Stadiums can be time-bombs waiting to explode. Tens of thousands of mostly young, energised fans in a relatively closed space can get caught up in a riot, instigated or started by accident, with lethal consequences. The Ultras supporters of big clubs like Ahly and Zamalek have clashed violently with police. Bombs can be planted by Islamic State.
Dangers lurking everywhere remain a concern, but football clubs and police can work together to minimise the risk. Metal detectors, strict searches at the turnstiles, CCTV surveillance of crowds, the prompt arrest of any misbehaving fans on the terraces, heavy court fines and bans, sometimes lifetime bans on persistent troublemakers. This, coupled with policing of stadia and the towns and cities in which games are held can break the back of football violence.
Right now, Egypt's stadiums are more like death traps, lacking much of this needed security. As such, the big games in which fans are allowed are all being played in one stadium, Borg Al-Arab. It's isolated, 25 km west of Alexandria. A 3.5 km long fence surrounds the stadium. In an emergency, the entire stadium of 86,000 can be evacuated in less than eight minutes. It's a perfect venue to keep spectators safe but there's only one of its kind.
The fan ban has been bad for Egyptian football. Club incomes have collapsed. Games have become boring because football without fans is like watching football on TV without the volume on. No announcer, no shouts, no chants. Silent soccer.
Pretty soon, Egypt will start to play international friendlies in preparation for the World Cup. TV monopoly rights will prevent many of these games from being broadcast. If the fans can't watch them on TV or go see them up close, what's left?
In Saudi Arabia, the government will start allowing women into football stadiums, something unheard of before. In Egypt, we're not allowing anybody in. One country is taking a step forward, the other two steps backward.
We want to hear loud and clear from our stadiums the one word that spells out what football is really all about:
G-O-A-L.


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