Although the national football team failed to make an impression in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Egyptian fans did.
They were beyond anybody’s expectations as they gave a remarkable performance and took over the Russian cities in their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. And, they definitely made the most out of it.
Back in 1990 in Italy in Egypt’s second World Cup appearance, Egyptian fans could be counted on one hand and the sports’ culture was different those days. People weren’t that much involved in football as they are today.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian fans descended on Russia to support the Pharaohs in their campaign at the World Cup, all doing a great job.
Planning for supporting the Pharaohs in Russia started right after the final whistle in the Egypt-Congo match last October which confirmed Egypt’s qualification to the World Cup.
Fans watching the game at Borg Al-Arab Stadium agreed among themselves right then and there to join their beloved team in its journey to Russia.
The very next day, Egyptian and international tourism companies announced their programmes for fans wishing to travel to Russia to support their team.
According to Mahmoud Ashour, general director of a well-known Egyptian tourist company, they were inundated with phone calls, e-mails and comments on their social media pages inquiring about their travel packages for the World Cup.
“We couldn’t believe so many people would show interest in travelling. Russia is an expensive country, yet people were so enthusiastic to go. We had already set up our provisional programmes since our company is known for organising such trips that involve major sports events,” Ashour said.
He said there were programmes for the group stage, up to the quarter-finals. “Most people were more interested in the group stage where they could attend the three matches that Egypt would play and enjoy the host cities as well,” Ashour added.
Round-trip prices were set according to the duration of the stay, ranging from LE40,000 to LE80,000, including flights, accommodation and tickets to the matches. For a country like Egypt, that amount of money could only be afforded by the well-heeled.
Some won free plane tickets after winning contests sponsored by food and beverage companies, and banks.
Many other fans were on their own. They bought their match tickets online and received them on arrival. The tickets gave them the right to a free entry visa to the country and a fan ID card which also allowed them free transportation within the cities, the stadiums and the Fan Fest at the same venues as the stadiums.
In Russia, Egyptians were not only supporters of their team but mingled with other fans from other countries in a mutual bid to support each other. They might not speak the same language or even a universal language like English, but they still communicated impressively.
According to FIFA, Egypt was ranked among the top 10 countries which purchased online tickets for the World Cup since ticket sales started almost a year ago.
The streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, the three cities where Egypt played their group stage matches, were invaded and conquered by Egyptians who made their nation proud with unconditional support for their national side. Indeed, they performed better than the team which was knocked out of the knockout stage.
Egypt’s Ambassador to Russia Ehab Nasr said that the number of Egyptians and other Arabs who attended the Egyptian match against Uruguay reached 27,000 fans while the number of Egyptian fans alone exceeded 22,000.
Even though the number was extremely impressive, the number doubled against Russia on Tuesday 19 June which was considered a must-win game for Egypt which lost 3-1.
Those figures meant that Egyptian fans comprised a third of the 70,000-seat capacity of the stadiums where Egypt played.
Had Egypt made it to the second round, those figures could have doubled or even tripled and tourism agencies were looking forward to that, as was the Russian economy. But Egypt failed to make it beyond the group stage while the number of Egyptian supporters decreased in their last game against Saudi Arabia.
Videos and pictures of Egyptian fans emerging from the streets of Russia went viral on social media, showing the passion of the supporters who gave 200 per cent in their first World Cup appearance since 1990 and which aimed at pushing the players to do the undoable and beat Uruguay and Russia to make it to the next round even though the odds tipped both to make it to the next round.
What was even more impressive about the Egyptian fans in Russia was their behaviour. They not only flooded the streets, mingled with fans from all around the world, made new friends, singing and chanting for their national side but above all they made sure to avoid problems, unlike the troublemakers of other nations.
Egypt’s supporters were everywhere. If not in the stadiums, they were on the streets, in hotels, coffee shops, touristic sites and all means of transportation. They were seen donning the Egyptian colours of red, white and black and waving the Egyptian flag and playing musical instruments.
They were many and surprisingly they moved in groups though they might not know each other or were travelling with different agencies. They were disciplined, cheering and singing famous Egyptian songs and teaching Russians the language and urging them to participate.
Videos on social media accounts showed the powerful effect Egyptians had all over Russia. The Russians, meanwhile, loved them, followed them around and sang along with them.
Egyptian fans used social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to share messages when needing to agree on a certain chant or move.
In the first match against Uruguay, Egypt’s superstar Mohamed Salah turned 26.
In a nice gesture, Egyptian fans shared on social media the following message from Mario George on Facebook: “To whoever will be attending the game in Ekaterinburg Arena in Russia, please note that we are going to celebrate Mohamed Salah’s birthday at the 26th minute of the match.
So, at 26 min, we will all sing together Happy Birthday. Please share.” And, it worked. On the 26th minute with the play ongoing, Salah, who was sitting on the bench as a substitute, heard the crowds chanting for him. And to prove the power of Egyptian fans, the word spread to Uruguay spectators who serenaded with the Egyptians their beloved superstar.
Using the same technique, Egyptian fans called on Egyptians in Russia to support defender Ahmed Fathi in the Saudi Arabia match.
Fathi had scored an own goal which gave Russia the opening lead. This time the call came from Ammar Homossany, also on Facebook.
The shocking lead for the home team had given them more confidence and led to the collapse of the Egyptian team which became unbalanced and conceded two more goals in just 10 minutes, eventually losing the match 3-1 and being eliminated from the competition.
Fathi was blamed for the defeat.
Egyptian fans were angry and disappointed but against Saudi Arabia before the game they were somewhat indifferent. For them, the game was meaningless since the result wouldn’t make a difference. Egypt was already out and even if they win, they will still go home.
Accordingly, some fans sold their tickets and returned home. Others also sold their tickets but decided to stay and enjoy the rest of their trip in sightseeing, while others, and they are many, decided to stay and support the team in their last match because this is what they came for in the first place.
Hossam Hassan Gadou, an Egyptian volunteer at Russia 2018, worked with the doping control committee. When off, Gadou would go to the city where the Egyptians were playing and mingle with some fans he already knew and cheer from the stands. He said he would be going to the game against Saudi Arabia, on Monday 25 June.
Gadou said some fans had sold their Saudi game tickets and had left for another city. “It has nothing to do with the game itself but they believe the city of Volgograd which is hosting the last game is a quiet city but they would prefer to continue their trip and invest their time by visiting other Russian cities of a touristic nature. They will still watch the game on TV.”
Apart from the fans, charter flights were arranged on the days of Egypt’s matches which flew in national public figures, celebrities and former players to Russia to support the national side and see Egypt beating hosts Russia to stand any chance of qualifying to the next round.
Egyptian fans not only invaded Russia but their nation as well.
In Cairo, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, men and women of all ages, gathered in front of giant screens in major squares, sports clubs, youth centres, schools and universities, coffee shops and hotels, across the country.
They did the same as their countrymen in Russia, donning the traditional red, white and black of Egypt as they cheered and chanted for their beloved team.
* All photos by Osama Abdel-Nabi
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Egyptian effect in Russia