The Egyptian Football Association, in a bid to curb mounting soccer fan violence, has ordered that at a 2012 London Olympics qualifier between Egypt and Sudan be played on Saturday in Cairo rather than the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
The EFA decision came after militant fans or ultras - highly organized, violence-prone, militant supporter groups modeled on similar groups in Italy and Serbia – stormed the pitch in Alexandria during a match between the city’s Premier League team, Ittihad al-Skandarya, and Wadi Degla, one of only two privately owned clubs in the 16-member league. The game was called off with three minutes of injury time to go. 22 people, including 12 policemen, were injured in the incident.
Security forces in Alexandria said they could not guarantee security if the match against Sudan were to take place in their city.
Security forces have largely evaded clashes with militant soccer fans in a bid to improve their image tarnished by the fact that they are widely viewed as ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s henchmen. The police hope that incidents in their absence will lead many to conclude that they are needed to maintain law and order.
The EFA fined Ittihad $9,200 and ordered it to play a home match away from home.
The pitch invasion was but the latest in a wave of incidents in which militant fans, who played a key role in anti-government protests earlier this year that toppled Mr. Mubarak, are part of a campaign to root out corruption in Egyptian soccer.
The EFA has called for an emergency meeting to discuss the fan violence politically troubled Egypt.
Fans and some clubs, including crowned Cairo team Al Zamalek SC and Premier League team Ismailia SC, accuse Egyptian referees as well as the EFA of corruption. The referee in Ittihad’s match against Wadi Degla was an Austrian national.
Ittihad chairman Effat Al-Sadat told the Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com that the EFA penalty was milder than he expected. "We expected more penalties," Mr. Sadat said.
Mr. Sadat became chairman after ultras earlier this year forced his predecessor to resign because he was a Mubarak-era appointee.
The incident in Alexandria has prompted security authorities to pressure Egypt’s military authorities to cancel this season’s tournament.
The Egyptian interior minister has threatened several times that it would cancel the Premier League if the violence continues. The EFA has warned clubs that they could lose points if they fail to control their fans.
The Olympic qualifier is important to Egypt after it all but failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations finals for the first time in 29 years. If Egypt succeeds to qualify for London, it would be the first time that it reaches the Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona games.
The EFA wants to ensure that the match against Sudan is played without incident as it considers bidding to replace Libya as host for the 2013 African Cup. Libya, racked by fighting between NATO-backed rebels and forced loyal to Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qaddafi is expected to be too insecure to host the tournament.
Continued fan violence in Egypt could mean that it too would be viewed as unsafe for an international tournament.
This month’s clash between Zamalek and its Cairo arch rival, Al Ahly SC, is likely to be a litmus test. Ultras of both teams have regularly clashed in recent years. Their rivalry is widely viewed as the world’s most violent derby.
The two clubs will be playing for who wins this year’s title. It will be their first clash since ultras of both teams temporarily buried their animosity to join forces in the protests against Mr. Mubarak. Hopes that the common battle experience on Cairo’s Tahrir Square may put the animosity definitely to bed have since been dashed. Zamalek accuses Ahly of having paid off many of Egypt’s referees.
The violence reflects a determination by militant soccer fans, emboldened by their role in deposing Mr. Mubarak after 30 years in office, to force change in their country’s beautiful game. It is a display of a newly acquired sense of power that is rewriting the politics of the country’s soccer.
The fans’ sense of entitlement and resolve to press for far-reaching soccer reform is reflective of Egypt’s post-revolution public mood. Protesters imbued with what people power can achieve continue to demonstrate after Mr. Mubarak’s departure in a bid to clean out remnants of his regime, ensure that Mubarak era officials are held accountable and press the country’s military rulers to fulfill their pledge to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.