With many people dying in one of the continent’s worst stadium tragedies, Egyptian football plunges to an all-time low, as Inas Mazhar reports from Cairo.
After the unexpected failure of the Pharaohs, winners of the last three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, to qualify for the 2012 finals in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea, Egyptian football has the hard task of reversing its decline.
But the poor results for the national team, usually a source of serious concern, are far from people’s minds, as the country mourns the senseless loss of 71 people, who died after a 1 February league match in Port Said between Masry, the local team, and Cairo giants Ahly.
The carnage, in which over 150 people were also injured, began after the conclusion of the match, as the so-called fans of Masry, armed with knives, metal bars and stones, stormed the pitch.
Players and fans of Ahly, who were the prime target of the mob, ran towards the stadium gates, with the hope of escaping. But the locked gates meant they could seek no place of refuge, as death and destruction took over.
So far, 62 people have been charged for being involved in the events that led to the tragedy.
CAF, African football’s governing body, has donated $150,000 to the victims, whilst FIFA, the world governing body, gave $250,000.
As public anger grows, with many blaming the local authorities in Port Said, especially the police, for failing to avert the tragedy, the military government showed the red card to the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), which has the primary responsibility of managing the domestic championship.
Samir Zaher, the EFA president, and the association’s board, which decided to postpone the league indefinitely, following the stadium deaths, were subsequently forced to resign.
Before a new board and president are elected, sometime in July, Anwar Saleh, the EFA’s secretary-general, will hold the fort, alongside a six-man interim committee. Saleh insists that the EFA cannot be held responsible for what happened in Port Said, laying the blame firmly at the doorstep of Masry.
With a parliamentary investigation launched, to find out the root causes of the tragedy, Zaher – as well as other people to be questioned by the enquiry – is forbidden from travelling out of the country, following an order from the country’s general prosecutor.
The current suspension of the league is the second in just over a year, the previous one taking place during the tumultuous period that led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the former state president, from power.
Several clubs in the 19-team league have vowed to boycott the championship on its resumption, whilst others have maintained a studied silence, watching to see how developments will unfold.
Manuel José, the head coach of Ahly, badly beaten during the carnage in Port Said, had vowed never to work in Egyptian football again. But pleas by Hassan Hamdi, Ahly’s club chairman, changed José’s mind. The highly decorated coach will remain in his home country of Portugal, pending the resumption of the league. Changing the mind of its top players is another matter, however.
Mohammed Barakat, Mohamed Abu Treika, Hossam Ghali, Emad Moteab and Wael Gomaa have decided not to play in Egyptian league football again, unless those responsible for the Port Said deaths are brought to book.
Amer Hussein, the EFA’s head of competitions, admits the immediate future of the league is far from certain.
“We can’t take a sole decision. It is a now a security issue and the government has to decide whether the league can resume or whether it will be cancelled.
“The idea to resume the league and play matches behind closed doors (without spectators) is being considered. But the Ministry of Interior has to approve it, because fans usually threaten to invade the stadium if they are not allowed in. Some have actually forced their way into some stadiums in the past and we cannot afford a repeat of that, as it could lead to another disaster.”
But Hisham Zayed, the head of the Pyramids Advertising Agency, the country’s top sports marketing agency, warns that the resumption of the league, even if fans are barred from the grounds, is imperative.
“The entire business of Egyptian football will collapse if things are not sorted out soon,” he warns.
“It’s a circle worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year, but the cancellation of the league could cause us a billion-pound loss.
“We as an agency buy the marketing and advertising rights of the matches from the federation, clubs and stadiums and sell these rights to sponsors. These sponsors pay the agency in installments, according to their contracts and we then pay the EFA and the clubs in the same way.
It is from this income that everyone involved in the league is paid, from the players, coaches, top administrators and every other person employed, right down to the ball boys.”
“And, don’t forget, the television stations that have spent large sums on broadcasting rights will be unable to sell prime advertising space to sponsors.
“If the league resumes, even without the fans, matches will still be televised, the sponsors will see their adverts rolling on the screen and the money needed for the league’s survival will keep flowing,” Zayed said.
Whilst Egypt’s participation in international competitions will continue, despite the stoppage of the league, the lack of match action will certainly affect the match fitness of key national team players, who are unable to play competitive football as a result of the league’s suspension, as well as deny the emergence of a new talent pool.
Having qualified to play at the London 2012 Olympic tournament, the first time they have done so in 20 years, the country also has to participate in the qualifiers for the 2013 African Cup of Nations, as well as the 2014 World Cup finals.
Scheduled to play against the Central Africa Republic in a Nations Cup qualifier on 29 January, CAF approved a long postponement of the game, as a result of the stadium tragedy and other political problems in Egypt.
“After the delay of the Nations Cup qualifying game against the Central Africa Republic, the Pharaohs will not have to play competitively before June, which will give them time to prepare,” says Amer Hussein.
“Our first two games are World Cup qualifiers, against Mozambique in Egypt on 1 June, with the second being an away match on 8 June against Guinea.
“As a federation, we are required to honour all our match commitments, as we could face a two-year international ban by failing to do so.”
Despite the postponement of competitive internationals, Bob Bradley, the US-born head coach of the national team, was keen on playing two friendly games, against Botswana in Ismailia on 20 February and three days later, Kenya in Port Said, the epicentre of the tragedy, even without the presence of fans.
Insisting that he remains committed to his contract, Bradley said his plans for the national team will continue, whilst sidelining, temporarily, the Ahly contingent of players, as they come to terms with the aftermath of the Port Said disaster.
But Bradley, who expressed his sympathy with the victims of the tragedy by marching alongside other football figures to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in protest, will certainly have difficulty in grooming a competitive national side at the moment.
Without the benefit of a competitive league to watch and select players from, the American may have to rely on the past form of players he has selected or depend on the suggestions of his local coaching staff.
In the meantime, the National Sports Council, together with the National Olympic Committee (NOC), have called for unity amongst stakeholders, in order to restore order to Egyptian sport.
Mahmoud Ali, the president of the NOC, says the sports community must not forget the stark reality that preparations for the London Olympic Games, which begin in July, have to continue, regardless of the challenges it must confront and overcome.
“I am not saying that we should forget our martyrs or those injured in the Port Said incident. I think we should allocate some part of the income from league matches to a fund for the families of those who lost loved ones in Port Said. The business of sport must continue, however,” Ali said.
But with the majority of Egyptians desperate to witness the exposure and severe punishment of those responsible for the country’s worst stadium disaster, it will take more than money and token measures to lay the ghosts of Port Said to rest.