Can we see 50,000 fans again?

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 4 Apr 2023

For more than a decade, security concerns have limited Egyptian fans to a few thousand in the country’s football stadiums. But that might change following a packed African Champions League game on Saturday, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Ahly of Egypt beat Al-Hilal of Sudan at the Cairo Stadium
Ahly of Egypt beat Al-Hilal of Sudan at the Cairo Stadium


It was not very surprising to see Egypt’s Ahly comfortably defeat Al-Hilal of Sudan 3-0 to make it to the quarter-finals of the African Champions League. Despite the teams going down to the wire in the group stage for the right to reach the knockouts, and even though Ahly lost to the Sudanese side 1-0 in Omdurman in the first leg, there did not appear to be much doubt that Ahly, the record 10-time champion of this tournament, would prevail over Al-Hilal who have never won the title even once.

Rather, what caught the eye on Saturday evening was the number of spectators in Cairo Stadium: more than 50,000. The place was rollicking with every goal and consequential pass and dribble. The party atmosphere turned back the clock when almost every game in African tournaments and the domestic fixtures played in Cairo were attended by the masses.

Is it possible that fans in the tens of thousands return not just to Cairo Stadium but all the others? Could the Ahly-Al-Hilal encounter prove the turning point?

Egypt used to have no problems with attendance turnouts in any of its myriad domestic, African and Arab tournaments, club and country. But that all changed following the nationwide uprising in January 2011. The revolution, which toppled the presidency, created a huge security vacuum that culminated in the death of 72 fans, mostly Ahly supporters, in Port Said in a league game on 2 February 2012. It was the bloodiest event in Egypt’s football history.

Being one of the world’s deadliest soccer riots, it forced the league to be suspended and when it returned, games were played behind closed doors.

Three years later, 20 Zamalek fans died from suffocation and a stampede after clashes with police who teargassed supporters attempting to enter the stadium without tickets.

From then on, matches were played with hardly any one watching from the stands.

The sight of long rows of empty seats continued for years, a span which included the coronavirus pandemic which put paid to any attempt to bring back the football faithful.

After the coronavirus was more or less contained, and stability in the country was deemed solid enough, the public slowly started to make its way into the stadiums. Last season saw a noticeable increase in the size of crowds at league games.

Internationally, and according to the importance of a tournament, some exceptions were made to thrust the gates wide open. The Africa Cup of Nations football tournament was not only hosted by Egypt in 2019 but was a nod from the Confederation of African Football, or CAF, that Egypt had returned to normalcy after years of upheaval.

The latest example of a fan flood would be last year’s World Cup qualifier against Senegal, again held in Cairo Stadium.

No matter how exciting any match is and no matter who is rooting for who, spectators make it a point never to forget. On the stroke of 20 minutes and 72 minutes into games, they wave their mobile torches to remember the fallen.


Ahly through to quarter-finals

On Saturday, the sixth and last of the group stage, Ahly striker Mahmoud Kahraba, the hottest forward in Egypt these days, scored an opener aptly named after him (electricity), as he corralled a high pass, looped the ball over the head of a defender, then fired into the left upright in the 25th minute.

Hussein Al-Shehat came off the bench in the second half to score a brace, sending Ahly through.

The result saw Ahly and Al-Hilal finish in second place in Group B, tied at 10 points but Ahly had the better of the head-to-head meetings.

Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa finished the group phase unbeaten with 14 points after beating winless Cotonsport 1-0. The Cameroonians lost all their group matches in the group stage, conceding 16 goals and scoring only three times.

The CAF Champions League quarter-finals draw will be held on Wednesday 5 April after Al-Ahram Weekly went to press (coming second in their group, Ahly will face either defending champions Wydad of Morocco, Raja Casablanca, also of Morocco, or Esperance of Tunisia, all former champions).

In Group D of the same championship, Zamalek ended a miserable campaign by beating Al Merrikh of Sudan 4-3 on Friday.

Though the game was pointless for Zamalek and Al Merrikh since they finished third and fourth respectively, they put on an exciting finale, with Zamalek taking a 2-0 lead, followed by three unanswered goals by Al Merrikh followed by two goals from Zamalek, the last coming at the very end. Nasser Mansi of Zamalek scored a hat-trick.

Zamalek finished with seven points behind Esperance with 11 points and CR Belouizdad of Algeria with 10. Al Merrikh collected five points.

Zamalek’s early exit, their third season in a row to miss the knockout stage, mirrored the recent chaos immersing the club. Their president Mortada Mansour was released from prison this week after spending 30 days behind bars for defaming Ahly’s president Mahmoud Al-Khatib. Portuguese coach Jesualdo Ferreira, who led Zamalek to the domestic double last season, was also sacked following the poor performance of the team in the Champions League and the local league.

In the second tier African Confederation Cup, also at the end of the group stage, Pyramids of Egypt reached the quarter-finals after defeating fellow Egyptians Future 2-1 in Cairo on Sunday.

The win pushed Pyramids to second place in Group C with 11 points, tied with AS FAR of Morocco which topped the group due to their better head-to-head record against Pyramids. Future finished with eight points and ASKO of Togo just two.

Pyramids reached the final of the Confederation Cup in 2020 before losing to RS Berkane of Morocco.

The draw for the quarter-finals of the Confederation Cup will also be held in Egypt on 5 April.


Safe and secure

Following Saturday’s victory over Al-Hilal, Ahly’s first-year coach Marcel Koller seemed awe struck by the sheer number of supporters in Cairo Stadium that can hold up to 75,000 people. “This is the first time for me to guide the team amid the presence of this huge number of fans,’’ Koller said. ‘’The chants and support of the great Ahly fans played a key role in delivering an outstanding performance and also securing the victory.’’

The fans were not only out in force that night and must have helped boost the players’ confidence but were on their best behaviour.

To be sure, it’s easy to convene an international match in which all Egyptians are cheering in unison for their one team. It’s a more difficult proposition to contain famed and fierce local derbies.

But even those frenzied affairs have been tamed. The 2020 all-Egyptian Champions League final between crosstown bitter rivals Ahly and Zamalek went off without a hitch.

Through the years, Egypt’s police have been able to weed out troublemakers and beefed up security to make going to football games safe and attractive events. In the process, ticket sales have refilled club coffers that had been decimated by years of barren football.

Ticket revenues are sorely needed in Egypt. So, too, are the people who buy them.

What’s football without fans?

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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