Morgan deBoer reflects on how politics and soccer collide on an Egyptian soccer pitch.

On April 3, 2011, the Egyptian club soccer team Zamalek hosted the Tunisian team Club African for an African Champions League match. Towards the end of the game, Zamalek scored, but the officials called the goal off-sides, confirming it with the video play back.

Some reports say hundreds and some say thousands of Egyptian fans–including its most ardent ones nicknamed the Ultras–responded to the call by rushing out of their seats and racing towards the field.

Zamalek players then linked arms, creating a human shield around the referee and the Tunisian players as the angered fans jumped onto the field.

It was for concerns of violence like this that the Egyptian Football Association had originally suspended all soccer games following the country’s late-January’s protests, which succeeded in toppling the 30-year regime of former-President Hosni Mubarak.

I wondered, as I watched the video of the crowd rushing the field, how this could have happened. By believing that an unfair soccer call was worth rioting and arrest, did this mean the Egyptian soccer fans love soccer so much that they had lost any perspective their countrymen might have gained during January’s protests?

I also wondered about Egyptian soccer as a whole. It seemed that the only reason the game had crossed my newsfeed was because of recent events in the Middle East, and because a fight between Egyptian and Tunisian fans would make a great headline. Was this a normal occurrence in Egyptian soccer?

It might be easy to say soccer had become a casualty of the January Revolution and the fans, after weeks of protesting in the streets, were more riled up, but soccer in Egypt has never been just about soccer.

The creation of Egypt’s first two teams reflected the contemporary political and social atmosphere in Egypt during its time under British occupation from 1892 to 1922.

Photo: Tarek

The British, the foreigners patrolling their streets, and the Egyptian upper class that befriended them, were not welcome by everyone in Egypt. A strong nationalistic movement developed to demand an end to British rule, and this group succeeded in removing the British protectorate in 1922.

During that era, two soccer teams were formed after England introduced the sport there. One team, Ah Ahly, became the Egyptian home team because of their national-born players, and the other, now called Zamalek, was made up of British military and government staff as well as upper class Egyptian nationals that fraternized with the colonizers.

There are many more club teams in Egypt today, but fans of the original two continue to root for more than the team’s color or a favorite player; they cheer for what they see is their personal history in Egypt, displayed on a soccer field. In a profile of the rivalry by James Montague in 2008, Montague explained that Al Ahly’s fans often taunt Zamalek with being “half-British”.

Al Ahly’s fans, traditionally in a lower income bracket than their Zamalek counterparts, believe in a populist-driven Egypt. One fan that Montague interviewed even noted that Egypt’s “two biggest political parties” were Ahly and Zamalek.

One hundred years later, these teams continue their bitter and sometimes violent rivalry. Fans of both teams can be so destructive that when they play each other that games must be played in neutral stadiums and referees are flown in to ensure impartiality.

This past January, the teams’ Ultra fans were particularly aggressive in voicing their opinions about soccer and the Egyptian government both on and off the field.

During the protests, both teams’ Ultras worked together, providing security around Tahrir Square and becoming spokespeople for the protesters.

With all their experience in collective organizing, the young and athletic soccer fans were suited perfectly for the role of representing a new generation of Egyptians.

Just one day before the April 3rd event the Zamalek’s Ultras announced that they would use their new political leverage to push for the military government to end corruption and remove from government and any other powerful posts–like soccer coaches–any individual that supported Mubarak.

I now realize that the Ultras and their supporting fans could have been responding to their new mission when they stormed forward on that day. The aggressive act, while off-putting at first, also represented a country storming forward, and the fact that their soccer team does, as it has for the past century in Egypt, represent the new political currents of a nation.

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Find out how soccer and politics collide in other ways on mSports.