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Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
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Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football

Monday, February 7, 2011

Zamalek SC Helps Mubarak Government Attempt to Restore Normalcy in Egypt

Storied soccer club Zamalek SC, keeping its eye on the suspended Egyptian Premier League and the African Champions League, is maintaining a rigorous training schedule despite an Egyptian military ban and the fact that many of its fans play a key role in anti-government demonstrations.

Zamalek Football Director Hassan Ibrahim told Egypt’s government-owned Al Ahram Online that the club had been training since its return last week from its 4:0 defeat of Kenya’s Ulizi Stars in Nairobi.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has postponed the return match from February 13 to February 25 between the two teams because of the turmoil in Egypt. The Egyptian Football Federation on Sunday extended the country’s winter transfer window because of the protests.

Egypt has been paralyzed for the past two weeks of protests demanding the immediate resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Soccer fans, including Zamalek supporters, have played a key role in the protests that have led to a tug of war between the government and its distractors with each side waiting for the other to blink.

“As soon as we got back from Kenya, we resumed our daily regular trainings after a two days break,” Ibrahim said.

“The majority of our team members attend the training sessions but only few who live outside Cairo find it hard to join due to the current curfew. We are set to fine players who don’t keep discipline. We are in action no matter what and we are planning to play friendly games soon,” the club executive said.

“The league has to be resumed as soon as possible because sport is proof that our country is strong and has returned to regular life,” he added.

Zamalek currently leads the premier league.

Zamalek’s public insistence that it is focusing on soccer at a time that Egypt’s fate hangs in the balance as well as its decision to play last week’s game against the Stars contrasts starkly with the silence from its arch Cairo rival Al Ahly SC, whose most fanatic supporters have also played an important role in the two-week old mass effort to end Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian rule.

Ibrahim disclosed Zamalek’ s on-going training on the same day that the Egyptian government was attempting to demonstrate that it was gaining the upper hand and that Egypt was returning to normalcy.

The Egyptian Football Federation suspended all matches on January 24 in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for anti-government demonstrators. Military officers visited clubs to order teams to immediately stop training. Hassan’s remarks suggested that the military was silently reversing the ban, at least in some cases.

Several bank branches opened on Sunday in Cairo for three hours for the first time in more than a week to allow Egyptians to withdraw limited sums of money. Government workers also returned to work for the first time since the protests started. Ships in the Alexandria port were loaded and unloaded but no cargo left the port.

Zamalek’s insistence on business as usual is likely to fuel its bitter century-old social and political rivalry that drives passions in the world’s most violent derby.

The feud amounts to warfare. Their vicious derbies on and off the pitch have caused death, destruction and in at least one case in the early 70s, the entire league to be cancelled. At stake is far more than pride; theirs is a struggle about nationalism, class and escapism.

So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insists that matches be played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game. Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plain clothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras, particularly those of Al Ahly, may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.

The roots of their rivalry pre-date the revolution to when Britain ruled Egypt and soccer was regarded as the colonial power’s only popular cultural import. Founded more than a hundred years ago as an Egyptians only meeting place for opponents of Britain’s colonial rule, Al Ahly, which means The National, was a nationalistic rallying ground for average Egyptians. Its players still wear the red colours of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.

Dressed in white, Zamalek, which originally was named Al Mohtalet or The Mix and then Farouk in honour of the than hated Egyptian monarch, was the club of the British colonial administrators and military brass as well as the Cairo upper class.

Independence did little to resolve the feud. El Ahly republicans represented the faithful, the poor and the nationalist. They battled Zamalek’s conservative royalists and bourgeois middle class and still do.

“Zamalek is the biggest political party in Egypt. We see the injustice of the football federation and the government against whatever once belonged to the king,” Ibrahim said last year, discussing his club’s feud with Al Ahly.

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