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Friday, June 17, 2011

Egyptian soccer body calls emergency meeting to curb fan violence

Egyptian soccer fans celebrate around another fan twirling a Sufi robe covered with the Egyptian flag around his head in traditional manner. (File Photo)
Egyptian soccer fans celebrate around another fan twirling a Sufi robe covered with the Egyptian flag around his head in traditional manner. (File Photo)
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) has called an emergency meeting to discuss fan violence amid a rising number of incidents that have disrupted domestic as well as international matches.

The EFA fears that the violence could jeopardize a potential Egyptian bid to replace Libya as host of the 2013 African Cup of Nations.

It also comes in advance of a much anticipated match later this month between Cairo arch rivals Al Zamalek SC and Al Ahly SC. Encounters between the two clubs are historically the scene of fierce clashes between battle-hardened soccer fans of the rival teams.
Egyptian interior ministry has threatened several times to cancel this season’s league if the violence continued and the EFA has warned clubs that they could lose points if they cannot control their militant fans or ultras, highly organized, violence-prone, militant supporter groups modeled on similar groups in Italy and Serbia. The ultras played a key role in the anti-government protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The EFA meeting follows the invasion this week of a Premier League match in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria between Ittihad al-Skandarya and Wadi Degla, one of only two privately owned clubs in the 16-member league, by some 100 Skandarya militants. The game was called off with three minutes of injury time to go.

The trouble began when Degla scored a 92nd-minute goal to go 2-1 ahead. Supporters in the 5,000-strong crowd threw plastic bottles at Degla players and team officials and fans then ran onto the pitch.

Last month Skandarya fans attacked the club’s players during training. Fans have been critical of Ittihad for months and have forced the club’s board appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak to resign. Players went on strike because the financially troubled club was unable to pay their salaries and rents.

Security forces also intervened last month in Port Said to separate rival ultras, who clashed on the streets of the Suez Canal city. Scores were injured in the brawl between supporters of Al Ahly and Port Said’s Al Masri SC.

In April, Zamalek ultras stormed the pitch during a match against Tunisia’s Club Africain. They destroyed everything in their path and attacked the referee and players.

The Ultras White Knights (UWK), the Zamalek ultras, plan to return on Friday to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the scene of their pitched battles with the police and Mubarak loyalists in the run-up to the former president’s departure, to protest “rampant corruption” in the EFA board.

The protest is part of a UWK campaign to clean Egyptian soccer of Mubarak-appointed officials, including EFA president Samir Zaher, and force the EFA board to resign. Mr. Zaher said last month that he would resign before his contract ends in 18 months’ time but did not give an exact date.

The soccer violence has called into question Egypt’s ability to enforce security at domestic and international competition matches and focused attention on the Egyptian police’s reluctance to engage militant supporters in the post-Mubarak era.

Police 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 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 incidents reflect 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.

The new mood among Egypt’s soccer fans has changed the relationship between the clubs and the country’s national team and their support base. It is likely to force significant changes in management as well as far-reaching reform at a time that senior soccer officials are suspected of corruption and clubs are struggling financially as a result of a three-month ban earlier this year on professional matches to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point, and diminished government support.

The rift between Egyptian fans and clubs, managers and players is aggravated by the fact that a majority of players and coaches stayed on the sidelines during the walk-up to Mr. Mubarak’s ousting. An Al Ahly banner displayed by fans in March read: “We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn’t find you.”

Top Egyptian soccer players, including Egyptian national team captain Ahmed Hassan, Borussia Dortmund striker Mohamed Zidan, Al Ahly defender Wael Gomaa and playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika have started to hit back at the militants with a YouTube campaign calling for greater fan tolerance.

“We need to become united following 25 January,” Ismailia SC’s Egyptian international midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou said in the 51-second video, referring to the first day of 18 days of mass protest that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign. 

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