Given the general mayhem and violence in Egypt these days, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the overall impact on football of the collapse of the Mubarak dictatorship has been nothing short of disastrous. Maybe in the face of such widespread suffering and civil strife, we shouldn’t even care.
But care we do, because football is an incredibly useful window through which one can look to analyse and understand better what gives in any particular society. The game and its organisation – or lack of it – speaks volumes about the very nature of any host society it has infected and enthused.
Amongst all the other things it is, football is a very effective prism through which the main themes within a nation are refracted and separated. It may not be a pretty picture but what you see certainly is ‘for real’.
The collapse of Egyptian football began, of course, with that terrifying death toll at the match in Port Said between bitter rivals, al-Masry and al-Ahly. It happened exactly two years ago this Saturday, on 1st Feb 2012. At least 74 fans were killed when, at the end of the game, the victorious al-Masry fans – some armed with knives and other weapons – charged both at the players and supporters of al-Ahly.
Conspiracy theories abounded. The al-Ahly ‘Ultra’ fans, though clearly victims of violence that evening, themselves had a fearsome reputation, especially for attacking the Egyptian police during the mass demonstrations in Cairo which had become an everyday feature of civil life. The police didn’t appear to do much to defend them after the match finished. Perhaps the police even encouraged the al-Masry fans on the night?
The structure of football governance began to wobble dangerously. Just as in China (and quite a few other nations which Fifa is happy to include as members), the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) traditionally took its instructions directly from powerful politicians in government, via the Ministry of Sport.
After the disaster, the top league in Egypt was closed down forthwith – and it remains in purda to this day. In addition, all football fans were banned from all matches elsewhere. The football system began to decompose like an ancient monument, only much more rapidly.
This is no ‘small earthquake in unimportant country’ story. The two top Egyptian clubs, al-Ahly and Zamalek, are the most successful in the whole continent of Africa, having collected thirteen CAF Champions League trophies between them. One simply couldn’t imagine something similar in a European context.
But you can imagine the financial impact on all the clubs of the abandonment of the league Championship and the ban on all fans in the stadium. The TV broadcasting rights became an ever more vital source of revenue. And they got screwed up a few weeks back when al’Ahly baled out of the $10million deal which the League had just signed on behalf of all the clubs, and went off and did its own, private deal with another TV company for $5.8million.
The political interference with the governance of the game and of the clubs themselves in Egypt, whilst always a fact of life, has become so clear and outrageous that Fifa is now on Egypt’s case. Complaints have been made formally and the EFA must answer.
The likelihood is that a two year international ban will follow the Fifa investigation.
Even in the desert, it never rains but it pours.