AFCON 2019: Footballing festivities

The Egyptian fans have been one of the main reasons behind the success of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations

Ahram Online , Ahram Online , Monday 8 Jul 2019,
Footballing festivities

Footballers often consider the presence of their fans during matches to be one of the most important ways of making the game exciting. No fans can kill the game and make it boring, and it can even mean that the fans have decided to be elsewhere and have turned down an invitation to the match.

Everywhere in the world, the fans are the ones who shape the atmosphere of a football game, with their cheers and boos being part of the game’s traditions. The media also has an important role to play in adding atmosphere to any football match, as it will pay attention both to what is happening on the pitch and in the stands.

The fans can often receive the same coverage as the footballers, sometimes even more so. Television cameras can film the spectators’ every move and record their chants and songs, while photographers will search out the best pictures of the same fans. The spectators and the fans have thus become a main element in building up the atmosphere of the beautiful game.

Football is now a global sport, and the culture of supporting national teams and clubs has spread across the world, with fans building up a base around clubs or at the national level. This diversity of support comes with varying degrees of distinctiveness, since in almost every country in the world today football has become part of the national culture, with much of life for many revolving around it. Many countries have daily football newspapers and magazines as well as radio and television channels that have made many football players icons and role models.

Over the 150 years since the creation of football as a sport in 1863, a vast supporting culture has emerged, in which supporters will go to sometimes extreme lengths to support their teams including by travelling to faraway places, naming their children after famous footballers, sporting tattoos to show their affection, donning their club’s or national team’s jerseys, and even following various football-related superstitions.

Egypt has hosted several world and regional football events over recent years, with the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the FIFA U20 World Cup being among the most significant. Scenes of foreign fans coming to Egyptian cities have now become normal for many.

Footballing festivities
Guinea fans before their match against Burundi at Al-Salam Stadium

Yet, the 2019 AFCON is different. The numbers of visitors have increased, thanks to the increase in the number of participating teams from 16 to 24, which means that more African visitors are coming to Egypt than ever before.

With this 32nd edition of AFCON now halfway through and going into its third week on Saturday, Egyptian audiences have become used to seeing different supporting colours in the six stadiums hosting the participating teams. These include the Cairo International Stadium, the Al-Salam Stadium, and the 30 June Stadium in Cairo, and the Alexandria Stadium, the Suez Stadium, and the Ismailia Stadium.

Each of the four cities hosting the games has been decorated with the colours of the teams so their supporters will feel almost at home.

Over the first two weeks of the event Egypt 2019 has received thousands of supporters from every African participating country and from other non-participating countries who have come to Egypt as lovers of the game whether their team is taking part in the competition or not.

The fans have given a cheerful and joyful mood to the venues and streets of the cities concerned. When they are not in the stadiums supporting their teams, they can be found walking round the cities, enjoying the entertainment and leisure opportunities they offer. They can be seen everywhere, walking in the streets, on public transport, in shopping malls, cafés and restaurants, and enjoying traditional Egyptian food.

While off the pitch, the supporters often maintain the same supporting atmosphere as inside the stadiums, singing loudly and dancing to drums and the bazouka, calling on the locals to join in. The fans also maintain the same rhythm of support in victory and defeat, especially the Senegalese who seem joyful even after they leave the stadiums.

THE TEAMS: It is easy to identify the supporters of each national team. The flags they are bearing, the jerseys and outfits they are wearing, and the things they are carrying can all distinguish one set of fans from another.

Their singing traditional songs sometimes helps as well, especially in the Arabic spoken by the North Africans and the English and French often spoken by the supporters of the African teams.

The three North African nations of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco represent the majority of the supporters, and they are here in their thousands, with the Moroccans reaching around 6,500 fans, followed by the Algerians with around 4,000, and the Tunisians with only slightly less. The numbers of North Africans are expected to increase next week, especially because of the powerful and exciting results of their teams. The Moroccans and Algerians have also attracted more supporters by getting Egyptian fans to join them.

The Moroccan fans feel especially at home in Cairo, having visited the country almost every year with two or three teams playing against Egyptian clubs in the African Championships each year. Even their journalists know Cairo by heart and have made many friends here over recent years.

In the stands, the Moroccan fans lift up banners, most often written in Arabic, thanking Egypt for its hospitality. When the Atlas Lions win a match, their fans take to the streets of Cairo to celebrate their victory and then go for dinner for a traditional dish of koshari (pasta, rice and lentils) as they celebrate while eating amidst the locals.

Amal, a Moroccan fan, told Ahram Online she was extremely happy to be in Egypt. “We are enjoying our stay very much and feel very safe. We thank Egypt for the hospitality and the perfect organisation of the event. Though the Al-Salam Stadium is on the outskirts of Cairo, we can still reach it easily,” she said.

“We are also very happy to be in Cairo. There are so many things to do here apart from the matches — so many places to visit and enjoy,” she added, saying that she expected an increase in the number of fans in the coming rounds. “Morocco is doing great in the tournament, and we believe it is going to go through to the final. We expect more fans to join us as not everyone can afford to stay a whole month away.”

“When we are not cheering Egypt, we Egyptians support either Algeria or Morocco since they are both playing in Cairo and they are also strong teams,” said Mustafa Abu Shadi, an Egyptian football fan and group leader.

“We go to the matches as a group and mingle with the North African fans in the stands and learn their songs. Despite the difference in our dialects, we still manage to understand one another. Egypt and Algeria together are ‘sawa, sawa’. They often chant in French, ‘allez l’Algérie,’ and they always say that the people want them to win ‘le coupe d’Afrique,’” he said.

Cote d’Ivoire supporters are very serious about supporting their team, and they seldom stop singing after they enter the stadium. “There is one older woman, I believe over 60, who supports the team as if they were going into battle. She is so full of enthusiasm for her team from the moment she enters the stadium and is so patriotic,” Egyptian fan Marwan Hisham said, commenting on his experience in the stands.

The Senegalese, on the other hand, are the most organised fans. When watching a match, they might don the opposite jerseys to their team. If their team is wearing a green jersey, they might wear a white, for example.

The numbers of fans from different countries can vary for many reasons, including the long duration of the tournament and the distance from home. South African fan Thato Moeng said that it was often easier for fans from North and East Africa to travel to Egypt, while it was more difficult for those from the south and the west because of the long distance and expense involved.

The whole event had been “great despite the heat, which is not your fault,” he said. “Other than that, it has been really nice to see Egyptian fans coming to watch other matches than the home team. Hats off to the Egyptians for such organisation in such a short time. I am also very much impressed by the security. Though some complain it is too tight, I prefer tight security and to feel safe.”

Some of the participating teams, not as famous as the larger teams in terms of their appearances at the event, may have fewer fans following them, most of them perhaps even being family members. But however few they are, they have been very supportive of their teams. Despite full houses at the Cairo Stadium, the supporters of Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda were brave enough to join more than 70,000 Egyptian fans roaring for their team, when their own numbers never passed 100. They even shared the Egyptian seats in the same stands and cheered for their teams until the last seconds of the games.

Following the Congo game against Egypt, which the hosts won, the Congolese fans insisted on waiting for the players’ bus to wave to the players, sitting on the pavement outside the gates until the bus had passed by. While waiting, they continued their support despite their loss, which made the Egyptian fans leaving the stadium join them in dancing and singing.

Footballing festivities
A Uganda fan with a painted back in reference to Uganda’s Denis Onyango in the stands before the match against Egypt (photos: Reuters)

NATIONAL CUSTOMS: In addition to the different methods of cheering and supporting the teams, the Egyptian stadiums have also seen waves of gorgeous costumes, mainly traditional ones allowing spectators to recognise the teams they represent.

“It has been a sort of parade or fashion show, capturing the admiration of the fans and the attention of the media as well,” said supporter Nadine Abdel-Gawad. “The fans put a lot of effort into preparing themselves to support their teams. Sometimes, they create or add modifications to their traditional costumes to make them more glamorous. It is an indirect way to expose one’s culture and identity to the world through costumes, reflecting the African heritage of each country to the whole world,” she said.

With these unique costumes invading the stadiums, an “Orange Fan of the Match” award has also been created for this year’s AFCON. At every match, a fan is selected and announced at half-time for the award. Orange, one of the main partners and sponsors of the event, is in charge of the award, and it is done through cameras in the stands, picking up the most attractive and fabulous costumes from those worn by the supporters.

This means that just as there is not only one type of football, there is not only one way to celebrate it, and the sponsor is recognising this by rewarding one fan present that day in the stands for his or her passion. It is, after all, the fans’ passion that makes football so beautiful as a game.

The winner is announced through his or her picture being shown on the stadium’s giant screens. He is congratulated by the announcer on his or her fantastic costume, and at the end of the match there is an award made right on the pitch.

This award has turned into a contest in its own right, encouraging the fans to become more creative and put on their best efforts to don the perfect costume to celebrate their teams from the stands. This in turn makes the stands look more colourful, producing the spectacular and vibrant atmosphere that is the trademark of the Egypt 2019 AFCON.

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