Egypt’s maligned Premier League, suspended since last year’s Port Said tragedy, starts on Saturday amid skepticism over whether the country’s football authorities had done enough to prevent the occurrence of a similar disaster.
Putting aside accusations from Ahly’s hardcore fans that police forces had a hand in an incident that killed over 70 fans, poor safety measures heavily contributed to Egypt’s worst-ever football disaster which sent shockwaves across the country and reminded people of the urgent need to address security concerns in the hugely popular sport.
However, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) had done little to overhaul the stadia’s ageing infrastructure, failing to meet new 10 safety requirements set by the public prosecution which included providing adequate equipment to monitor and capture rioters.
Thousands of Masry fans poured onto the pitch following the end of an ill-tempered game against rivals Ahly to confront the visiting contingent, sparking the deadly confrontation that saw 21 Masry supporters sentenced to death.
The disaster occurred on 1 February, 2012. On 2 February, 2013, the new season will kick off and die-hard fans will have no alternative but to cheer on their teams in front of television sets, with the first half of the season set to be played behind closed doors.
All the matches will take place at military-owned stadiums, Egypt’s modern football facilities, as the EFA sought to provide a temporary solution to get the league going amid the club’s financial woes.
“The haphazard attempts to resume the league, with or without fans, will lead to serious problems and maybe more victims,” said sports critic Alaa Sadek, a staunch opponent of league resumption.
Egypt’s clubs had to offload many of their starts to stay afloat, with lack of domestic action taking their toll on the cash-strapped sides, who were deprived of television revenues - their ultimate source of income.
Cairo giants Ahly, who rarely face financial difficulties, loaned out talismanic playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika to United Arab Emirates side Bani Yas for $1.2 million.
They had also accepted an offer from English Championship (second division) side Hull City to sign influential duo Ahmed Fathi and Mohamed Nagy ‘Gedo’ on loan until the end of the season.
“We will be affected by the absence of the three players, in addition to the injuries of Hossam Ghaly, Sayed Moawad and Walid Soliman. However, we have the utmost confidence in the rest of the players,” Ahly football director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz said on the club’s official website.
Zamalek, Ahly’s traditional rivals, managed to sign long-term target Ahmed Eid but had to offload Benin striker Razak Omotoyossi after failing to fulfill their financial obligations towards him.
Most of the Premier League clubs must come to terms with a player exodus that is likely to affect their displays in a new-look competition.
The league’s traditional format has been changed due to shortage of time, as a two-group system was introduced for the fifth time in the competition’s 65-year history.
The first two in each group will qualify for decisive round, which will feature a mini-league to determine the winner. Ahly, winners of the past seven editions, were separated from Cairo foes Zamalek in the draw.
Ahly begin their campaign against Ghazl El-Mahalla on Saturday while Zamalek take on Alexandria-based club Ittihad later in the day. Both matches will be played in Cairo.
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