The eyes of the world may be on Brazil and the World Cup but before Messi and Maradona, before even Pele, there was Al Ahly and there was Zamalek.
Football in the Arab world began with the founding of the two Cairo clubs more than a century ago. Egyptian club football has always reflected the country’s politics, from its anti-imperialist origins to the Arab Spring revolts.
In British-administered Egypt, Al Ahly represented the anti-imperialist working class and Zamalek the elite, the foreign administrators and the military. There were other famous Arab clubs but it was the Cairo rivals who captured the hearts of football fans across the Arab world, even as far away as Dubai.
“Soccer is a massive thing in Egypt,” Adel Abdel Ghafar, a doctoral student whose great-grandfather cofounded Al Ahly club, told the Middle East football scholar James Dorsey in 2012.
“It is like religion. In most countries you are born Jewish, Muslim or Christian. In Egypt you were born Ahly and Zamalek. People would not ask your religion, they would ask whether you were Ahly or Zamalek.”
The origins of one the most intense football rivalries had little to do with football. In early 20th century Egypt the game, imported by the British, spread from military camps to cities where it flourished as a symbol of imperial resistance.
In 1905, the Egyptian lawyer and activist Mustafa Kamil founded the Students Club for people excluded from social clubs for foreigners and the elite. Two years later, it officially became Al Ahly Sporting Club.
Al Ahly (Arabic for “the national”) adopted the red and white of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag and Saad Zaghloul, leader of the 1919 revolution, became the first president of the club’s House of Commons.
When Al Ahly won matches, protests flared against British rule.
Their great rival was founded in January 1911 by George Marzbach, a Belgian lawyer working in Cairo on the construction of a tramline.
The club was first called Qasr El Nil, after the location of its first clubhouse. Open to all economic and ethnic groups, the club moved sites and changed its name to El Mokhtalat (“the mixed”) in 1913.
Throughout the next decades the rivalry between Cairo’s biggest clubs continued, reflecting the divisive domestic debate on national identity. At the height of Egypt’s struggle for independence from British rule in 1925, Al Ahly’s general assembly banned foreigners from membership, while El Mokhtalat retained its reputation as a club for the elite, even changing its name to that of the Egyptian monarch, King Farouk.
Yet the new club name, like the king, would not endure. King Farouk, unpopular for his handling of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and his decadent lifestyle, was overthrown in the Free Officers Coup of 1952 led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The club’s name changed for the last time to its neighbourhood – Zamalek.
In 1956, Nasser became the national president and in the same year he was also named Al Ahly’s honorary president. His public work projects included the 100,000-capacity Cairo International Stadium, completed in 1960. But in 1967, Nasser decided to ban football, declaring it a distraction after the Six Day War. The embargo lasted until after his death in 1970. His successor, Anwar Sadat, restored the game as a way of raising the low national spirit.
Sadat, like his successor Hosni Mubarak, was an Al Ahly fan. Both attempted to use football to boost their own popularity and as a vehicle for strengthening national identity. And Egypt, nationally, prospered on the wider footballing stage. Between the reintroduction of football in the early 1970s and the downfall of Mr Mubarak in 2011, Egypt won the African Cup of Nations no fewer than five times, making them the most successful country on the continent.
At club level, the fierce rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek continued, but in the 2000s a new phenomenon emerged – the rise of the Ultras, football fans known for their fanatical support and willingness to stage large-scale demonstrations.
The Ultras might have been inspired by European football fans, but they did not adopt their right-wing ideology or nihilistic violence. Groups such as Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights and Al Ahly’s Ultras Ahlawy were anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial. They stood for collectivism and resistance.
“I made my first steps into politics in 2000,” Mohamed Gamal Besheer, godfather of the Egyptian ultra movement and author of Kitab Al Ultras (The Ultras Book), told Mr Dorsey in 2011.
“I was against corruption and the regime and for human rights. Radical anarchism was my creed. Ultras ignore the system. You do your own system because you already own the game. We see ourselves as organisers of anarchy. Our power was focused on organising our system.”
The fan clubs, formed in 2007, began as non-political, non-religious groups but became increasingly politicised in response to regular police confrontations. “This harassment was motivated by the fact that Ultras subverted state control over public spaces,” wrote Connor Jerzak, a scholar at Oberlin College in Ohio, in an article last year for Interface, an academic journal that studies social movements.
“The events of the 2011 Arab Spring further politicised the Ultras and transformed them into revolutionary actors.”
The Ultras faced arrest, harassment and strip searches. They worked independently, prohibited outside funding and followed strict rules on mandatory match attendance.
When the Arab Spring came, they knew how to mobilise. “I don’t want to say we were solely responsible for bringing down Mubarak,” said Assad, the leader of Al Ahlawy, in 2011. “Our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back, not just run away. This was a police state.
“Our role started earlier than the revolution. During the revolution there was the Muslim Brotherhood, the activists and the Ultras. That’s it.”
Two weeks after Tunisian Ultras and other protesters ousted their president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Cairo’s top two Ultra groups declared their non-political stance on Facebook. Members were free to protest as individuals.
In private, members were told the demonstrations were what the groups had prepared for in the four years since their founding.
Mohammed Hassan, a young computer programmer and leader of Zamalek’s ultra White Knights, led a march of 10,000 strong from Cairo’s Shubra neighbourhood on January 25. Throwing rocks and burning vehicles they stormed the headquarters of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and faced riders with machetes at the “Battle of the Camels” in Tahrir Square.
When the Egyptian football league restarted 61 days after Mr Mubarak’s removal, Cairo’s Military stadium was crowded with 7,000 Ahlawy fans who waved Tunisian, Libyan and Palestinian flags and chanted slogans against their former leader and Habib Al Adly, the former interior minister.
The sense of triumph, rather like the Egyptian revolution itself, did not last. On February 1, 2012, armed men entered the away stands at the end of a match between Al Ahly and Al Masry in Port Said, killing 74 fans and injuring more than 1,000. Many fans and outside observers believe the violence was premeditated and politically motivated.
In March last year, however, a court in Cairo sentenced 21 fans to death for allegedly causing the riots at the stadium and acquitted seven police officers. More than 60 protesters have died in clashes with police since the verdict.
“The Port Said case goes to the core of the need for reform of state institutions still rooted in the era of toppled president Hosni Mubarak,” writes Dorsey, an author and blogger and senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
To understand Egypt’s politics, look no further than the pitch.