79 people were killed and hundreds were injured in a riot in Port Said (pronounced sigh-eed), Egypt last February. 21 people were recently sentenced to death for their roles in the riot. Egypt is hardly a stable country, but this riot was unique among the tumult. It was not—on its surface—politically motivated. It was not highlighted by clashes between protesters and police, and indeed most accounts suggest that the police didn’t do much to prevent it. This riot, now known as the Port Said massacre, occurred at the end of a soccer match.
The fans on the receiving end of this attack were supporters of Egypt’s most popular club, Al Ahly. The club has won the Egyptian Premier League 36 times, the Egypt Cup 35 times, and the African Champions League 7 times—all more than any other team. But recently, it’s their supporters who have been in the spotlight. Al Ahly’s most extreme fans, known as ultras, have taken up a nasty habit of using nationally televised matches to announce their immense displeasure with the government.
In countries where freedom of speech is less protected, soccer stadiums are often the safest or only places where large numbers of people can gather and shout what they want. In addition, as soccer fandom can become explosive—in some countries it’s not uncommon to see flares and smoke bombs in the crowd—the supporters tend to become very familiar with the police. So it was Al Ahly ultras who were among the first to clash with the police as Mubarak’s reign came to a close in early 2011. Ultras, of both Al Ahly and their rivals, were there in Tahrir Square when the revolution came to a head, and they were there again when the new leadership proved unsatisfactory. And a year later, in Port Said, when police turned a blind eye to an attack on Al Ahly supporters, it’s hard to view the incident as accidental. Most don’t.
The general consensus is that the Port Said massacre was not the over-boiling of heated emotions, as sports riots tend to be, but rather a planned attack against the fans of Al Ahly for their role in the revolution.
Here in the US the games we play may be reflections of the lives we lead, but they are not overtly political. The teams we root for are brands, and our choices are generally based on geography if anything. Part of this is because of the money involved, and part because cities are generally limited to one team per sport. The Red Sox have no reason to align themselves with a political cause. But on a global scale, we’re in the minority. One of the teams in Egyptian soccer represents the police union. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland is drawn along religious lines. Barcelona’s fans advocate for Catalonia’s independence from Spain; the city’s less successful team has always been associated with the central Spanish government.
I’m torn: I wouldn’t mind our sports holding some grander significance beyond the playing field. Rooting for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, can feel empty. But then, hasn’t politics invaded enough of our lives?
About the Author (Author Profile)Ryan is studying journalism in the college of communication. He hails from Rochester, New York, and is slowly growing tired of explaining that it's really quite far from NYC. He watches far too much sports and likes to think of his life as a really long (and occasionally boring) book. His guilty pleasures include most of the music from the 1980s and every movie Sylvester Stallone ever starred in.
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