The roots of the rivalry between Cairo arch rivals Zamelek FC and Al Ahly Sporting Club were evident this weekend with Zamalek beating Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars 4:0 in Nairobi’s Nyayo National Stadium, while Ahly fans focused on protesting against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in the streets of Cairo.
“This victory is for Egypt,” Kenya’s The Nation newspaper quoted Zamalek coach and Africa’s most capped player, Hossam Hassan, as saying.
“We just played our best and concentrated on the game on the pitch. We pray and hope that things will be back to normal when we play in the return match at home,” Hassan said.
Zamalek scored its victory at the very moment that Al Ahly soccer fans emerged as one of the most significant forces in four days of protests that have already forced Mubarak to dismiss his government.
To be sure, large numbers of Zamalek fans went shoulder-to-shoulder on Egyptian streets with their Ahly rivals, demanding the departure of Mubarak as well as forming neighbourhood watch groups to guard against looters and thugs. Whether the bonding on the embattled streets of Egypt has a long-term effect on relations between the two clubs remains to be seen.
The dichotomy of Zamalek playing while much of Egypt battled to seal the country’s future is however more likely to ultimately fuel the two clubs’ century old feud.
The feud amounts to social and political 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. The rivalry was one reason the Egyptian Football Federation on Thursday cancelled all matches.
So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insists that matches be played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game. Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plain clothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras, particularly those of Al Ahly, may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.
The roots of their rivalry pre-date the revolution to when Britain ruled Egypt and soccer was regarded as the colonial power’s only popular cultural import. Founded more than a hundred years ago as an Egyptians only meeting place for opponents of Britain’s colonial rule, Al Ahly, which means The National, was a nationalistic rallying ground for average Egyptians. Its players still wear the red colors of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.
Dressed in white, Zamalek, which originally was named Al Mohtalet or The Mix and then Farouk in honour of the than hated Egyptian monarch, was the club of the British colonial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class.
Independence did little to resolve the feud. El Ahly republicans represented the faithful, the poor and the nationalist. They battled Zamalek’s conservative royalists and bourgeois middle class and still do.
“Zamalek is the biggest political party in Egypt. We see the injustice of the football federation and the government against whatever once belonged to the king,” said Zamalek board member Hassan Ibrahim last year, discussing his club’s feud with Al Ahly.
“The federation and the government see Zamalek as the enemy. Zamalek represents the people who express their anger against the system. We view Ahly as the representative of corruption in Egypt.”