A Spring final

Damiano Benzoni

With two minutes remaining, Ahmed Fathi finds el-Sayed Hamdi in the box and serves him. Hamdi kicks low, in the angle goalie Chrifia can’t reach. Al-Ahly has just evened scores with Espérance, whose Walid Hichri had scored the opener from a corner, in the first minutes of the second half. The match is the first leg of the African Champions League final, played the other night and finished in a 1-1 draw at the Borg el-Arab Stadium in Alexandria. Al-Ahly can be pleased at avoiding a loss in the finishing minutes, while Espérance can tame its disappointment with the comfort of having scored an away goal. The return leg will be played in two weeks at the Stade Olympique de Radès, in Tunisia. Al-Ahly and Espérance Sportive de Tunis are the most titled teams of their respective countries, as the former won thirty-six Egyptian league titles and thirty-five cup titles, while the latter won twenty-four Tunisian league titles and fourteen cup titles. Al-Ahly is also the most titled team in the continent as regards the CAF Champions League, a trophy the team has won six times between 1982 and 2008. Espérance, the winner in the past edition, had previously won the tournament only once, in 1994.

Al-Ahly and Espérance were, most importantly, among the main characters of the political events of the respective countries and of the whole north of Africa, ever since a wave of protests set Tunisia on fire in the last months of 2010. The protests were to force the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and to spill in the whole region, kicking off the so-called Arab Spring. The first country to fall victim of this contagion was Egypt, where the supporters of the two main teams from Cairo, al-Ahly and Zamalek, gathered together and played an important organisational role in the Tahrir square revolution, which ousted Hosni Mubarak. The two revolutions brought the national leagues of the two countries to a halt. The leagues were later restarted and saw the triumph of al-Ahly (seventh title in a row) and Espérance. In Tunisia the remainder of the football season was played in front of empty terraces, as it was decided to play behind closed doors; in Egypt, instead, relegations were blocked and the following season started with nineteen teams instead of sixteen.

In September, 2011, the two teams met for the first time since the outbreak of the Arab Spring for a Champions League group game. The match in Cairo was preceded by a string of violent events involving the Ultras Ahlawy, the militant and hyper-politicised supporters of al-Ahly. The supporters clashed with the security forces – with an outcome of three victims – and took part to the ransacking of the Israeli embassy. Espérance and another team from Tunis, Club Africain, has also been involved in incidents in the previous weeks. Even though the Ultras Ahlawy tried to keep the supporters calm during the match with Espérance, there were clashes with the security forces – an institution which is despised for its ties with the regime and for the role it played in the post-Mubarak reorganisation, dominated by the military rule. The result on the pitch was a 1-1 draw which ended the al-Ahly campaign. Fans tried to avenge their disappointment by assaulting the players of both teams and trying to storm the al-Ahly locker room.

North African football is not new to riots: the Tunisian rivals of Espérance, étoile du Sahel, were banned from the Champions League earlier this year for a pitch invasion and for the launch of rocks and firecrackers during a match against their co-nationals. In Egypt, though, the friction between supporters and security forces radicalised after the Port Sa’īd incident. On February 1st a violent charge made by armed home supporters of al-Masry resulted in the death of 79 people after a match against al-Ahly. Security forces stood by and didn’t intervene to prevent the carnage, and previously had let al-Masry supporters take weapons in the stadium. Port Sa’īd is widely believed to be an attempt gone out of hand to teach militant fans a lesson because of their political antagonism. After Port Sa’īd the Egyptian championship was cancelled. Only al-Ahly and Zamalek were allowed to play their respective Champions League matches, strictly behind closed doors.

The match against Espérance is the first to be played in front of a public in Egypt after Port Sa’īd. Egyptian supporters are trying to avoid the resumption of the leagues and state that no match should be played before justice is made for the victims of the incident. They also expressed their disappointment for the slow progress of legal proceedings against 74 people (including nine security officers). As was explained by James M. Dorsey on his blog MidEastSoccer, militant fans are asking for security forces not to be involved anymore with stadium security and for the police forces to undergo a comprehensive reform. Supporters recently attacked the premises of the Egyptian FA, the al-Ahly training ground and the offices of a number of media organisations. Fans have often criticised footballers for not supporting them during their protests. A notable exception is Mohamed Aboutreika, al-Ahly’s own favourite, who came back just yesterday after a two-month suspension given to him by his club. He has refused to play the Egyptian Supercup final, in order to express its support to the Ultras Ahlawy demands on Port Sa’īd.

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