When Zamalek’s official Facebook page asked the team’s supporters the routine question of who they think was man of the match following a comprehensive 4-0 Egyptian Premier League win, most of the devout fans simply replied: “our martyrs”.
The simple answers, which drew thousands of likes, referred to another football tragedy that saw 20 Zamalek fans die in a stampede after being tear-gassed by security forces just before the beginning of a game against ENPPI at Cairo’s Air Defence Stadium on 8 February.
One fan later died in a Cairo hospital, bringing the total number of victims to 21 in a shocking incident that was a painful reminder of the inadequate security measures in Egyptian football, which also led to a catastrophe in 2012 when more than 70 Ahly supporters were killed by rival Masry fans in the country’s worst ever football disaster.
While three years ago the Premier League was called off, this time life went on after a brief stoppage, with Zamalek going on to end an 11-year drought on Tuesday after nearest challengers Ahly were held to a surprise 1-1 draw at home to Smouha.
“We know that those who left us are in a much better place now, you will be in our hearts forever. Our martyrs are enjoying it in heaven,” Zamalek said on Facebook, drawing thousands of comments mourning the club faithful whose families shared emotional stories about their devotion to a success-hungry outfit.
The scene of Zamalek’s supporters crammed in a barbed wire pathway before being tear-gassed is still fresh in the memory of fans and players alike.
Zamalek players, many of whom were initially attacked by the team’s faithful for opting play the match against ENPPI despite the tragedy, said they were determined to win the league to dedicate it to the “martyrs”. They also repeatedly insisted they were not aware there were any deaths when they decided to carry on in the infamous encounter.
Omar Gaber, a fan favourite who refused to feature in the game and was on the verge of leaving the club after its administration rebuked him for his stance, kissed a black armband whenever he scored while all players wore under-shirts which read "those are the real champions" below a printed number 20 during the warm-up of the final matches of the season.
An emotional #Remember20 hashtag was created on Twitter to ensure the victims won’t be forgotten amid the league celebrations.
But Ultras White Knights, Zamalek’s main fan group, took a rigid stance after deciding to boycott any title celebrations.
“We don’t hate anything good that happens to our team, for whom we did lots of things, but the pain and sorrow in our hearts can’t swallow any displays of happiness in the same place where our brothers were killed a few months ago,” the group said in a statement.
“The least thing that should have been done for the martyrs’ pure blood - canceling the league - was not done … so we will not take part in any celebrations of the league triumph which came at the expense of the soul of our brothers.”
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