Al-Ahly’s seventh Champions League triumph was about more than football
Rades, Tunisia. November 2012
72. 74. 22. These are the numbers that Al Ahly football club now live and die by. Football is a numbers game, filled with facts and vintage years to be compared and contrasted, to be argued about and fought over. Attendances, assists, clean sheets. Sometimes even goals. But not in Egypt. In Egypt, football has been deprived of almost all of its statistical fuel as well as its petty controversies and concerns. There are no more league matches to discuss. No goals between local rivals to dissect. No attendances to weigh against the previous years. There are just three numbers that exist above everything else. 72. 74. 22.
72. The number of Al Ahly fans killed at a football match in Port Said on 1 February 2012. Al Ahly, Africa’s greatest ever club team, travelled from Cairo to Port Said for what should have been a routine league victory. It was a little over a year since the January revolution and Egypt was still a hopeful if anarchic place. Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution, was still occupied by a coalition of activists and protesters. Almost every shade of political opinion was represented there, be they secular or Islamist, united by the single cause of ousting Hosni Mubarak. Then came the hard bit: building the new Egypt. A military government by then existed with a splendidly Orwellian acronym: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Scaf. But the protests and the arguments continued. Several thousand Al Ahly fans travelled up to Port Said to see their team play Al Masry. It was always a tough place to come. The last game there had seen Al Ahly’s fans run out of town. But they returned. They lost 3-1, a rare thing in Egyptian football for a team that has won the league 36 times. When the final whistle blew, thousands of Al Masry fans rushed onto the pitch like an invading army.
“The fans were coming, sprinting. I knew they hated me and all the players. All the players ran,” Ahmed Fathi, Ahly’s right-back, would later tell me. In video footage, the players can be seen sprinting back to the dressing-room just as the human wave crashes into the Al Ahly stand. At first Fathi was just relived to have escaped. “I didn’t know what was happening outside,” he said. “But something was happening outside. After this they killed the boys. Not the men, the boys.” The lights in the stadium had been turned off, the gates to the Al Ahly stand locked. 72 young men were crushed, beaten and stabbed to death. Fathi only knew how serious things had become when the bodies and walking wounded started arriving in the dressing-room. “One of the fans came to the room and said: ‘You have a problem outside. Someone has been killed.’ And then another has been killed, and another,” he recalled. The Al Ahly players watched as fans were brought in, some dead, some dying. “After this another comes in and he has a wound.” Fathi slowly ran a finger from the left side of his temple to his chin, to illustrate the gash on the young man’s face.
74. The dead were all members of the Ahlawy, Al Ahly’s ultras group. They had become much more than a group of supporters. They had played an important, some say crucial, part in the January revolution. During the Mubarak years there were no political parties, independent unions or opposition groups allowed. But there were the terraces, and it was there, at Cairo International Stadium’s Curva Nord, that the Ahlawy became an anti-authoritarian thorn in the regime’s side. They would fight the police on a weekly basis. But then members and leaders would be arrested. Their numbers exploded. Songs began to be sung against the regime demanding greater freedoms. Those songs would later become the soundtrack — and their distinctive red flag, an eagle atop a shield, would become the aesthetic — of the revolution.
They say violence is in our blood
How dare we fight for our rights?
Hear what we say
But it was more than flags and songs. Come the revolution, the ultras from all of Egypt’s clubs were 15,000 strong in Tahrir Square, the only group that had any experience fighting the hated police force. Mubarak was toppled. The ultras had helped to win the freedom they had sung for. And then 72 of their members were dead in suspicious circumstances. Who locked the gates? Why were there no police on the pitch? Why were the floodlights cut? Who had a vested interest in punishing the Ahlawy? Immediately, the season was cancelled and Al Masry thrown out of the league. Protests and vigils for the dead followed. Not for the 72, but for the 74. The Ahlawy considered this number the number of mourning. The 72 that died in Port Said and two members who were killed during the revolution. They were the shahid, the martyrs. For the Ahlawy the link between the revolution and Port Said was clear. They would use any means necessary to prevent the league from restarting until they secured justice for the 74.
22. Mohamed Aboutrika is celebrating with his teammates on the pitch of the Stade Olympique de Rades in Tunisia. Al Ahly have just won their record seventh African Champions League titl (a year later, they would win an eighth), beating Esperance 2-1, 3-2 on aggregate. The striker Mohamed ‘Gedo’ Nagy fired them ahead just before half-time before Walid Soliman scored a brilliant breakaway second with half an hour left. But they would not be here if it wasn’t for Aboutrika. He is more than simply one of the greatest players Africa has ever produced. He is the team’s soul, the club’s moral compass and beloved in Africa and the Middle East. He wears 22 on his shirt. But this is perhaps the greatest victory, the sweetest. Or at least, the most bittersweet, and certainly the hardest fought. Aboutrika, like almost all of the players celebrating on the pitch, had been there in Port Said. He had held a mortally injured supporter on that day. “You know the story?” Bob Bradley, the Egyptian national team’s American coach would later recount. “The fan says to Aboutrika: ‘Captain, I always wanted to meet you...’.” The fan died in Aboutrika’s arms.
With the league cancelled, the African Champions League was all that was left for the club. Its players had been deeply traumatised by what they had seen. Several, including Aboutrika, had quit in the immediate aftermath before returning. The players, the club and the fans vowed to win the title to honour the dead. They had survived Port Said, but that wasn’t the only setback they had to overcome. Their coach quit. They survived a coup in Mali. Protests had seen two matches come within minutes of being cancelled. They had fought back on the pitch when seemingly dead and buried. All of this while a revolution was taking place in the background and while they played their home games behind closed doors. And now they celebrate. Aboutrika’s iconic number 22 cannot be seen any more. The team is wearing T-shirts with the names of the 72 on the front. The players dedicate their victory to the men who died at Port Said. In the stands a few thousand Al Ahly fans have made the trip to Tunisia. Flags with the number 74 are flown.
Alexandria, Egypt. March 2012.
It is a few weeks since the tragedy of Port Said. A march has begun on Port Said Street, behind Alexandria’s famous library. Tens of thousands of men and women fill the streets as far as the eye can see. Those with the loudest voices sit on their friends’ shoulders to face the crowd and lead them in revolutionary song. They are here to commemorate the death of Mahmoud Ghandour. He was the leader of the Alexandria chapter of the Ultras Ahlawy but died in Port Said. Walking with the thousands of others is Shady Mohamed, Al Ahly’s most decorated captain, having won four African Champions Leagues and six league titles. He doesn’t play for Al Ahly any more, but that doesn’t matter. “I played for Ahly for 11 years and I must fight for these people,” he says as the crowd chants around him. “72 people died. This is difficult. More young people, 14 and 16 years old. But I am coming to support all the fans.”
There is no such thing as a former Al Ahly player. The bond between player and fan has always been closer at Al Ahly than at any other club of its size in world football. The fans have always expected victory, true. But the players have always expected their support too. There is an affinity between the two that has always existed. Their love is given, and their love is returned. Shady didn’t think twice about coming to the march. “Ahly win everything, understand? The problem isn’t just now or one month ago. It is for years,” he says when asked to explain why he believes the Port Said tragedy took place. “Port Said don’t like Ahly. But if the police are strong, good. If they are not strong than they go to the other side and kill the fans. My friend, the Ultras Ahlawy, they have a good mentality. They support the fans every way they can. The police must protect them. This is not football.”
It takes three hours for the march to snake through the streets. All the while they are cheered by the watching crowds on the balconies. An old lady holds up a handmade placard denouncing the army. The march eventually stops at the gates of the headquarters for Egypt’s army in the north of the country. Troops stare back atop armed APCs. There is a tank and a dozen foot soldiers. All their guns are trained on the crowd. The troops don’t move. The gate stayed locked. The protesters kneel down and pray before peacefully dispersing.
Military Academy Stadium. Cairo. May 2012.
Thoughts switched to the African Champions League. Initially it was thought that Al Ahly would pull out of the tournament, given how traumatised their players were. But the Ahlawy urged the players to win it for the martyrs of Port Said. Aboutrika and the club’s legendary midfielder Mohamed Barakat agreed to rescind their initial decision to retire. Al Ahly were drawn in the first round against Ethiopia Coffee from Addis Ababa. The first match ended 0-0 but security concerns meant the second leg almost wasn’t played. It was only a few hours before kick-off that permission was granted for the match to take place at Cairo’s Military Academy Stadium. No fans were allowed in. In deathly quiet Al Ahly won 3-0. Mohamed Aboutrika scored twice. When he scored he fell to his knees and kissed the grass. But arguably Al Ahly’s greatest match came next.
Hossam al Badry had always been a faithful servant to Al Ahly. He had risen through the youth ranks in the 1970s and played for eight years in the first team before injury finally cut his career short. He had played for the club at various levels for 17 years. He returned in a coaching role as assistant to Manuel José, the Portuguese manager who would led Al Ahly through the greatest and most successful period in the club’s history. He had briefly taken charge of the team when José had left, but both returned to prepare for the second-round match against Stade Malien. No sooner had the team landed in the Malian capital of Bamako than a coup began. The players were stuck in their hotel for a week after their 1-0 loss as vicious street-to-street fighting played out around them. “We remember when we were waiting for the flight to take us back. Every minute, every hour, waiting for the plane to Mali,” El Badry recalled with a shake of the head. “Actually Al Ahly had a very bad time for almost one and a half years. We tried to change the problems to motivations.”
It looks as though Al Ahly’s Champions League campaign is over. They quickly go 1-0 down in the first half of the second leg, again in the empty Military Stadium in Cairo. They need three goals in the second half to progress. Mohamed Aboutrika is brought on at half-time. This is his time. His first goal, after 54 minutes, is a stunning 30-yard free-kick into the top left-hand corner. His second, in the 82nd minute, is a penalty that he skewers into the bottom left-hand corner. The third, six minutes later, is perhaps the finest. Aboutrika starts the move and feeds the ball out to left. The cross isn’t dealt with by the Stade Malien centre-back. Aboutrika is near the penalty spot. He swivels and volleys the ball just inside the left-hand post. He runs in a zig-zag, unable to decide which direction is best to celebrate in before he is engulfed by bodies. They qualify for the group stage 3-2 on aggregate. The Stade Malien tie is enough for Manuel José. He resigns and is replaced by El Badry, largely because, with no league, no one else will take the job. El Badry is now in charge of the team for the group stages. Al Ahly are drawn in a tough group alongside TP Mazembe from DR Congo, Ghana’s Berekum Chelsea and their perpetual Cairean rivals Zamalek. They will lose only one game, against TP Mazembe in Lubumbashi, and top the group. But the team were without their 22 for the final group game against Zamalek.
Alexandria. September 2012
It is September now, seven months since the tragedy of Port Said and still the league has not resumed. As the Ahlawy had promised they successfully boycotted the league until a verdict in the Port Said case had been delivered. 73 people had been arrested and were awaiting trial, mainly Al Masry fans but also key security figures. In some cases, the Ahlawy would picket stadiums where matches were about to take place. The Egyptian FA, so tainted by their close association to the Mubarak regime, crumbled in front of the Ahlawy’s opposition. As the trials are delayed, so is the league. But in September the FA arranges for the season opener, the Super Cup, to take place anyway in the vast Borg al Arab stadium outside Alexandria. The Ahlawy vow to storm the stadium if the match goes ahead. Mohamed Aboutrika refuses to play. “[I am] not participating in the game for fears that another massacre will happen in Borg al Arab Stadium in Alexandria,” he says in a statement. “For the sake of avoiding bloodshed, the game should not have been played so that the Port Said massacre doesn’t happen again.” Al Ahly ban Aboutrika for two months for his refusal to play. He will miss the semi-final against Sunshine Stars of Nigeria.
Cairo. November 2012.
It is now an hour and a half before Al Ahly are due to play Sunshine Stars in the second leg of the African Champions League semi-final. The first match, in Ijebu Ode in south-west Nigeria, had ended 3-3. Gedo had scored twice but Al Ahly had twice thrown away a lead. This match in Cairo is again to be played behind closed doors but the Sunshine Stars players are nowhere to be seen. They are trapped in their team hotel. Outside it is inundated by Egyptian protesters. They aren’t the usual protesters you would see at Tahrir Square, nor are they the Ahlawy, but a gathering of professional footballers, angry that their livelihood has been taken away from them. They are angry that Al Ahly were still allowed to play in the Champions League, tapping into a resentment that had existed long before the revolution that the club received special treatment. The players had hoped that if they barricaded the Nigerian team in the hotel, the match would be cancelled, Ahly would be kicked out of the competition and their cause would finally be understood. Instead the Ahlawy sprung into action. “We only found out during rush hour that the players were having a march,” says Mohamed, a founding member of the Ahlawy when we talk about the protest. “We embarked on a mission to ‘free’ the Sunshine Stars players. We contacted each other by BBM and SMS and congregated. There were fights with the players. I think one of the players had a gun. They prevented the Sunshine players from going to the game. We had to let the game go on. We cleared the way for the bus.”
The Ahlawy led the Nigerian players to the bus and arranged an escort to the stadium. The Nigerian journalist Colin Udoh, who was embedded with the Sunshine Stars, saw the whole thing. “When the players were coming down the fans were applauding them,” he recalls. “On the drive to the stadium 2,000 fans were lining the road applauding us. Inside the bus they didn’t understand it. They thought they were angry with them … It is a unique position, to see fans with that much power.” The final obstacle to the final had been overcome. Al Ahly beat Sunshine Stars 1-0. “That is how we want to honour the people who died at Port Said,” Mohammed explains. “We honour them by winning this trophy.”
And honour them they did.
Port Said, Egypt. February 2013.
Somebody still cuts and waters the grass at the Port Said Stadium. It is almost exactly a year since the 72 fans of Al Ahly were killed here. It is midday and I can see the fresh green grass through the locked gates. The lines have been painted on the pitch and the sprinklers are pffting. No football has taken place for a year but someone still loves this stadium, still loves this grass. The green pitch feels like the only splash of colour in the city.
The Port Said Stadium had been refurbished for the 2009 Under-20 World Cup, but it resembles any other crumbling 1950s relic found in any other dying town in the Middle East. And Port Said is dying. It sits at the mouth of the vital Suez Canal. But it is isolated and down on its luck. Unemployment was high here even before the revolution and Egypt’s subsequent economic collapse. Near the stadium burned out cars and barricades litter the street. The previous night I had arrived in Port Said an hour before an army curfew had come into force. 30 people had been killed in the city after the initial verdict in the Port Said trial had been delivered. 21 Al Masry fans were sentenced to death. The families of the accused and the guilty stormed the prison, killing two policemen. The police fired back. Port Said had burned every night since and more deaths had followed, a cycle of funeral, protests and killing, funeral, protests and killing. The Port Saidis I had spoken to talked of a conspiracy, of how Al Masry was being sacrificed to prevent Cairo from descending in to chaos. That night another protest snaked thorough Port Said’s streets, this time in defiance of the curfew. One protester was shot dead.
It is late morning now and the gates of the Port Said stadium are locked. I circle its grey walls looking for a way in, past graffiti from the Al Masry ultras, the Green Eagles, denouncing the verdict. Another says, “NO TV. GO TO THE STADIUM.” Each door is firmly shut with brand new padlocks. But one gate has been carelessly left unlocked. I push it open. It is next to the gate where the crush took place, where the majority of the Ahlawy perished on 1 February 2012. The stairwell where they were crushed looks horrifically tiny. The gates that had eventually sheered away from their concrete pillars still lay discarded on the floor 12 months on. It looked as if it had happened yesterday. I take some pictures but I’m chased out of the stadium by a security guard shouting that I am an Israeli spy.
That weekend the football league finally returns to Egypt. The Ahlawy had successfully prevented the league from restarting three times over the past six months until justice for the 74 had been served. They believed it had. A few months later there were more convictions too, including for the head of security for Port Said. The prosecutors’ report alleged some form of collusion: a meeting had taken place before the match between the police and some of the 21 Al Masry fans sentenced to death. But many questions remain unanswered over what happened on that night in Port Said.
Africa’s new champions begin their first league match in a year in an empty stadium on the outskirts of Cairo. They win 1-0 but one number is missing. 22. Al Ahly, even with the Champions League success, still have a financial black hole to fill. Gedo, the goalscoring hero from the final, and Ahmed Fathi are sent out on loan to Hull City in the English Championship. Mohamed Aboutrika is loaned out to Bani Yas in the UAE league, where he thrives. He wears the number 72 on his shirt. He will also later announce his retirement. The Egyptian league won’t last long. It will finish without a conclusion thanks to further instability. Mohamed Morsi will be deposed in an army-led coup. Hundreds more will die protesting on Egypt’s streets.
But, for now, this is still the future. Back in Port Said I run from the stadium for fear of being lynched as an alleged Israeli spy, back to the burned out cars. Hundreds of people are here now, gathered outside a mosque. As in the preceding days, it is the funeral of a young man killed in clashes with the police. The body is carried through the crowd on a stretcher, wrapped tightly in linen, back towards the barricades.
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