When Ahly, Egypt’s most professionally run club, opted to play it safe with their hardcore fan group, they looked shrewder than nemesis Zamalek whose reckless approach to their repeated quarrels with their passionate fans has proved to be a recipe for disaster.
Zamlek’s chairman Mortada Mansour, a fiery-tempered lawyer known for his acid tongue and regular outbursts at opponents, took every possible chance to berate the club's main fan group the Ultras White Knights, opening a new front in his non-stop battles.
What began as a simple dispute between Mansour and Zamalek’s fans, who last year accused him of not doing enough to fulfill his promise to persuade Egyptian authorities to lift a longstanding crowd ban, developed into a serious confrontation that included a physical assault on Mansour by fans, who in turn branded the White Knights a “terrorist group” bent on creating chaos in the country.
The tit-for-tat exchange continued until 20 Zamalek supporters were killed in a stampede earlier this month after being teargased by security forces as they tried to enter the army-owned Air Defence Stadium in Cairo to attend the team’s Egyptian Premier League game against ENPPI, after the crowd ban was partially lifted.
Security forces attempted to disperse the crowd, claiming that they did not have tickets. The White Knights however say the violence was avoidable and point to new security measures, including a “metal cage” leading to the entrance to the stadium which created a dangerous bottleneck, as contributing to the high numbers of fatalities.
They point the finger at Mansour, accusing him of plotting with the interior ministry to kill the fans. They also cite his controversial decision to keep 5,000 tickets out of the 10,000 available to distribute them himself as a ploy to prevent the Ultras from gaining access to the stands. Mansour's decision drew cticism from many, including some Egyptian Football Association officials.
A different approach
Mahmoud Taher, Mansour’s Ahly counterpart, seems to believe however that a still tongue makes a wise head.
The Ultras Ahlawy largely share the impulsiveness of the White Knights, but they have been contained by Taher, who not only kept channels for dialogue open but has also on occasion leapt to their defence.
“There is a major difference between the approach of Ahly and Zamalek. Taher was smart; he knew that it’s unnecessary to create any rifts with that section of the supporters as long as the channel of communication operates perfectly,” Sherif Hassan, a sports journalist who has closely followed the Ultras groups since they were first established in 2007, told Ahram Online.
“It was proven how important this kind of dialogue was during Ahly’s Confederation Cup final in December. On the morning of that matchday, the interior ministry panicked after finding out that some Ultras Ahlawy members had entered the stadium to put up their banners and prepare for the game. The ministry feared they would riot.
“Ahly’s management then made use of its good relationship with the Ultras Ahlawy, contacting the group to tell them about the interior ministry’s complaints. The fans immediately and calmly left the stadium and said they would re-enter later. And you can see how successful and trouble-free the game was,” said Hassan.
Ahly’s fans, whose coordinated chants and pre-match choreography are known for creating a feverish atmosphere in the northern stands of the stadium, were lauded by a normally hostile Egyptian media after the Confederation Cup incident, and President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi publicly lavished praise on the group, signaling a possible thaw in relations between the state and the fan group.
“Mansour, in contrast, did some foolish and needless things. He used to blow things out of proportion to make a fuss. What’s the big deal when the White Kngihts insult him during games? He could have easily side-stepped all that in order not to aggravate tensions, but his ego made that impossible,” argues Hassan.
Mansour sought the backing of Ahly in his war against the White Knights, but Taher chose to remain diplomatically tight-lipped when he was urged by the Zamalek chief to take a firm stance.
When Mansour took it to the next level by rebuking Taher late last year, accusing him of “supporting criminals”, the latter felt it was the right time to hit back and win over the Ultras Ahlawy, departing from his normal low profile.
“Some people do not care about the interests of the country, they just want to inflame tensions, and this not good for Egyptian football and the country,” he told a news conference in an implicit reference to Mansour, demonstrating acumen in his first year as the chairman of Africa and Egypt’s most successful outfit.
“Ahly’s fans are always disciplined, and we can’t accept that they be branded as terrorists,” he said.
With tensions increasing, Mansour has accused the White Knights of trying to assassinate him, including during an incident in October that saw a couple of teenagers throw plastic bags filled with urine at him. Some fans have been arrested and charged in relation to the incident.
But worse confrontations may be yet to come, with the White Knights vowing to avenge the 20 Zamalek supporters who died in the violence at the Air Defence Stadium.
“It’s a grave mistake to treat those groups as criminals. In Europe, clubs are aware that such groups are very influential, so there is always a better way of dealing with them,” said football pundit Khaled Bayoumi.
“Dialogue is the only valid means to contain them.”
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