On Cairo’s Tahrir Square, fanatical supporters of arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC put their deep-seated animosity aside in the run-up to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and bolstered the opposition with their organizational and logistical know-how as well as their experience in street battles.
A participant in the recent Annual Arab Youth Summit at the Library of Alexandria, articulated a perception among many Egyptians of a new era in which soccer rivalries no longer defined relationships. "Just like in Egypt, we had Ahly and Zamalek against one another, we don't have that any more. So we're not Egyptian or Libyan we're just people," the participant said.
In Tripoli, Libyan soccer fans appear to be aligning themselves in a very different way. Returning to his Tripoli hotel in recent days, Time Magazine reporter Ian Lee watched supporters of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi halt traffic with their pro-government demonstration. The demonstrators were waving flags of Tripoli rivals Al Ahly SC, which is majority-owned by one of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi’s more notorious sons, failed soccer player Saadi al-Gadaffi, and Al Ittihad SC.
“Fierce rivals on the field, these two teams are united on the street under banners reading ‘God, Muammar, Libya, only,’ Lee reports on Time’s blog.
In an indication, that many of the two teams’ supporters are also among those demanding an end to Gadaffi’s 41-year rule, Lee quotes his driver Mohammed as he looks at the pro-Gadaffi supporters in his rearview mirror as saying: "That wasn't many."
While that may be true, public support in Egypt for the embattled regime came from some club managers and Egypt’s national coach Hassan Shehata rather than from fans. In response, fans in Egypt are demanding the resignations of those pro-Mubarak managers as well as of Shehata.
By and large however, few Egyptian players and coaches joined the anti-Mubarak protesters on Tahrir Square while the majority chose to stay on the sidelines.
By contrast, Libyan national team coach Pablo Priesto suggested earlier this week that his players supported Gadaffi. “Our entourage was loyal to the leader, I suppose. The players never really came out on what was happening. (The coaching staff) didn't talk politics. The players neither, I guess,” Priesto said.
The team’s attitude reflects a complex relationship with the dictator that is evident across the Arab world. It is an attitude that cannot be reduced to vested economic interest or privilege but constitutes an expression of the dictator’s success of getting those he rules to internalize his positioning as the nation’s father.
As a result, players often support protesters demands for an end to corruption, greater transparency and more freedom, but object to the perceived indignity to which they see their leader or father as being subjected to. It is an attitude that resembles that of a child who defends his father irrespective of whether his father is right or wrong.