World Football in Focus - Football Dispute Reflects Egypt's Deepening Schism

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Al Ahly have seemingly aligned themselves with the anti-government protesters, while arch-rivals Zamalek favour the government's position. The reality among fans and players is more complicated, however. (Getty)
(WFI) FIFA has told the Egyptian Premier League that it cannot resume playing until security is re-established in the country, as splits over the league’s future between the country’s two biggest clubs reflect Egypt’s deepening schism.

Egypt has been gripped by revolutionary foment for more than a fortnight, as protestors have taken to the streets and squares of the country calling for an end President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.

At least 150 people have been killed in protests, as parts of the country have ground to a halt by the insurrection. All football activities in Egypt have been halted by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) due to the continued unrest, leading to fears that the league season could be abandoned.

“FIFA set a condition that there must be sufficient security for players and fans before deciding to resume games,” Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher told CNN earlier this week.

“They also required that all clubs must state their approval to continue the competition.”

Zaher said that the possible cancellation of the league season could mean that some clubs would “face disasters”. He suggested that resuming the Egyptian Premier League may help bring a sense of normalcy to the country.

“Cancelling the Egyptian league will cost us a lot. The clubs may face disasters as they have spent a lot of money on training camps, sponsorship deals and player transfers,” he said.

“We will hold a meeting with the clubs’ officials to agree on resuming the competition and arranging details like match times, location and referees.”

The protests that have gripped the region have also caused football to be disrupted elsewhere. Algeria, which has also been consumed by protests, has suspended its league too, and Wednesday’s international friendly with Tunisia was postponed, although the official reason – “unavailability of a stadium” – seems difficult to credit.

It has been suggested that Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia – whose dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was last month deposed – will approach CAF with a view to getting African Cup of Nations matches slated for next month postponed until later in the year. Question marks remain over the destiny of the CAF Champions League, with representatives from the three countries due to play preliminary matches over the next two weeks.

Football and politics collide

On the streets of Cairo pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters have been augmented by Egyptian football ultras. The suggestion locally is that fans of Al Ahly – Africa’s biggest team – and Zamalek are reliving their football rivalry in the battle over the country’s destiny.
Anti government protesters on Cairo's Tahir Square have reputedly included Egypt striker, Mido, and Hossam Hassan, the Zamelek manager and football icon.
Zamalek are traditional viewed as the establishment team, and the implication is that their supporters are pro-Mubarak.

The reality, however, is more complicated. Al Ahly’s ultras last week put out a statement on Facebook insisting they were non-political and that its members “are free in their political choices.” Zamalek’s former goalkeeper Nader el-Sayed was filmed leading anti-Mubarek protesters on Tahir Square, while the club’s coach Hossam Hassan and striker, Mido, are also reported to have joined the protests.

The clubs themselves have taken vastly different stances, however. Zamalek have taken a business as usual approach and insisted that their players train as normal, under threat of fines; their position mirrors that of the Mubarek government, which is trying to minimize the role of the protests and undermine the anti-government protesters.

“The league has to be resumed as soon as possible because sport is proof that our country is strong and has returned to regular life,” Zamalek Football Director, Hassan Ibrahim, told the state-owned newspaper, Al Ahram, earlier this week.

Al Ahly, meanwhile, publicly rejected plans for the Premier League to resume while Cairo’s streets were filled with protestors.

“I don’t think Al Ahly would be happy to do such a thing [return to action] because … Al Ahly is the biggest club in Egypt with the biggest supporters and I don’t see any spirit in the game if it is played without supporters,” Khaled Mortagey, one of the club’s directors, told the BBC.

In asserting this position, Al Ahly –which claims a fan base of 50 million fans – is effectively lining itself up against one of the longest lasting and most entrenched dictatorships in the world. Given such a backdrop, football suddenly takes on a new importance.

“The political stalemate between the protesters and the embattled Egyptian leader has erased any middle ground in Egypt,” writes journalist James M. Dorsey on his excellent Middle East football blog.

“As a result, soccer club attitudes towards a lifting of the suspension of matches and the ban on training effectively amount to political statements.

“The feud between Al Ahly and Al Zamalek amounts to warfare.

“Their vicious derbies on and off the pitch have caused death, destruction and in at least one case in the early 70s, the entire league to be cancelled.

“At stake is far more than pride; theirs is a struggle about nationalism, class and escapism.”

From INSIDER’s James Corbett

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