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Monday, June 13, 2011

Tensions between Egyptian soccer fans and players mount over politics and violence


Former Egyptian national soccer team coach Hassan Shehata was accused of having supported ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. (File photo)

Former Egyptian national soccer team coach Hassan Shehata was accused of having supported ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. (File photo)


Top Egyptian soccer players are hitting back at their militant fans four months after relations between the two soured over a refusal by most players to join the mass anti-government protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.


The players are responding to mounting incidents at domestic and international matches, which the fans have used to disrupt games, demand a clean-up of Egyptian soccer management dominated by Mubarak-appointees, protest against the police who are widely viewed as Mr. Mubarak’s henchmen; they also call for an end to corruption.
The players, including Egyptian national team captain Ahmed Hassan, Borussia Dortmund striker Mohamed Zidan, Al Ahly defender Wael Gomaa and playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika have launched a campaign on YouTube calling on fans to display greater 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 after 30 years in office.

“I hope we make another revolution, but this time it should be aimed against what is happening now. We need to correct that situation,” Mr. Abou-Treika said.

Ultra White Knights (UWK), the militant soccer fan group of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, last Thursday used their team’s match against Ittihad al-Shorta, the Egyptian Premier League team owned by the police, to denounce police brutality and corruption.

Hundreds of UWK members stormed the pitch in April during an African championship match between Zamalek and Tunisia’s Club Africain, destroying everything in their path and attacking the referee and players. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) fined Zamalek $80,000 and ordered it to play its next two African matches behind closed doors.

The incidents have prompted the Egyptian ministry to warn that the incidents could force it to cancel this year’s domestic championship and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to threaten that it would penalize clubs if they cannot control their fans.

The increased post-revolution violence is largely a result of fans regaining control of stadiums in the absence of the police who erected rings of black-clad steel around stadiums during matches and whom they fought for years on an almost weekly basis. The absence of the police since the overthrow in Mubarak is part of the law enforcement body’s attempt to repair its image by keeping a low profile and avoiding confrontation and an attempt to prove that they are needed to uphold the public peace.

The clashes with the police as well as with fans of rival clubs hardened the fans’ as street fighter and prepared them for the key role they played in fighting the police and supporters of Mr. Mubarak during the protests that led to his departure.

The fans further resent the fact that the majority of players stood on the sidelines during the protests in which many militants were injured. The players’ absence has also reinforced a belief among militant soccer fans that players are mercenaries who play for money rather than out of a commitment to their club. It has moreover reduced fan support for Egypt’s national team whom they see as Mr. Mubarak’s team because the former Egyptian president closely identified himself with trophy-after-trophy winning squad in the hope that it would help polish his tarnished image.

The players hope that their campaign will persuade more militant fans to pressure their militant brethren.

The chances of the players’ success may have been dented by the video’s inclusion of controversial Zamalek forward Mahmoud Abdel-Razek “Shikabala,” who has come under attack for seeking to fuel tensions between militant fans of rival clubs.

Mr. Shikabala, Egypt’s top scorer with 13 goals, was caught on tape chanting a song against Zamalek archrival Al Ahly SC.

Scores of UWK members last week demonstrated in front of EFA headquarters to demand the resignation of the soccer body’s president, Samir Zaher and protest a decision by the referee in the Zamalek’s recent match against Maqassa, which it lost 1:0. The club was fined $3,400 because Zamalek fans threw stones on the pitch in protest against the referee’s decision. The fans accused the EFA of “oppression.”

Zamalek has charged that a significant number of referees, including the one in the match against Maqassa, have been bribed by Al Ahly, Egypt’s wealthiest club, to disadvantage its rivals.

Zamalek and Ahly are expected to face off for the champion’s title later this month with only one point separating them.

The spiraling dispute over the impartiality of referees has prompted Premier League team Ismailia SC to threat to withdraw in protest against what it called “biased refereeing.” The EFA has warned Ismailia that it would be relegated to the second division if it followed through on its threat.

The dispute has forced the EFA to fly in foreign referees for a number of matches.

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