Egyptians are attached to soccer the way the French are to wine. It’s well-nigh impossible to find an Egyptian who is not a fan. When major matches are being broadcast, Cairo turns into a quasi ghost town. The only sounds are the shouts of the fans huddled in front of televisions when a goal is scored.
Well-to-do Egyptians play soccer in private clubs, whereas the poor play in the street with a type of ball they have improvised from scraps of old socks and pieces of sponge. These street games are the training ground from which most soccer stars emerge. Every large club has a scout whose job it is to go watch these ad hoc matches and sign up talented players. That’s when the fate of a whole family changes, as they say goodbye to poverty and set out on the road to riches.
When did Egyptians start playing soccer? Possibly, in ancient times: The Greek historian Herodotus, who is thought to have visited Egypt in about 460 B.C. and again in 448 B.C., described the sight of young men kicking around a ball made from goatskin and straw. In 1863, the laws of the game were adopted by the Football Association in England; 19 years later, the British occupied Egypt and gave Egyptians the codified version of what became the national game.
Psychology provides some explanation for this Egyptian passion. Professor Allen R. McConnell of Miami University proposes that soccer fans — yearning to be part of something greater than their limited world — gain a sense of belonging from their soccer club. Professor Ronald F. Levant of the University of Akron believes that identifying with a sports team is a way to enjoy triumph when life is difficult and personal success elusive.
Both theories have a resonance for Egyptians, who have long despaired of obtaining their rights because of tyranny and corruption. For a game’s 90 minutes, they can forget their feelings of injustice. On the field at least, there are rules.
The identification of Egyptian soccer fans is so strong that they believe it is their duty to support their team even in times of crushing defeat. Such absolute loyalty often leads to altercations between the closest of friends or even family members. When their team’s reputation is at stake, the most tolerant people turn into fanatics.
A complicating factor is that team loyalties sometimes overlap with political allegiances. The two largest clubs in Egypt were established in a partly political context. Al Ahly has symbolized popular sentiment in Egypt since its founding in 1907. Early on, the revolutionary Saad Zaghloul was appointed an honorary president of the club, a post later filled by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, who became president of Egypt that year.
In contrast, Zamalek, which was founded in 1911 and known as the “mixed club” because it included both Egyptians and foreigners, was presided over by General Mohammad Haidar Pasha, aide-de-camp to King Fuad I; in 1940, his successor granted the club permission to call itself “Farouk I” — after himself. Following the army coup of 1952, it was renamed Zamalek.
Generally, soccer altercations in Egypt have a performative and entertaining aspect, but they have on occasion led to a national crisis. In a 1971 match between Ahly and Zamalek, a forward named Farouk Gaafar seemed about to score when the Ahly goalkeeper, Marwan Kanafani, intercepted the ball and fouled him. The referee awarded a penalty, which Farouk Gaafar took. When he scored, Ahly fans stormed the pitch.
The match was suspended, and all Egypt was plunged into days of bitter dispute over the incident — and the press wrote of little else. The popular anger kept rising until an Ahly star, Saleh Selim, stepped in to calm fans’ tempers by publicly acknowledging that the penalty call had been correct.
Egypt’s rulers have often used soccer as a means of diverting the attention of the masses or controlling them. No Egyptian president has been as attached to the game as Hosni Mubarak was. He always attended the national team’s matches and was often seen yelling advice to the players. His sons, Alaa and Gamal, fraternized with Egypt’s top players.
Mr. Mubarak’s propaganda machine made sure that before a match, supporters were treated to patriotic songs and sloganeering. These displays were useful for deflecting dissatisfaction with the regime, but they also fueled an ugly chauvinism.
In the aftermath of a 2009 match between Egypt and Algeria held in Sudan, the Egyptian state media claimed that Algerian fans had attacked some Egyptians. The Egyptian and Algerian media traded the vilest of insults, and this led to angry demonstrations in both countries. The Algerian Embassy in Cairo was besieged, while Egyptian businesses in Algeria were set on fire.
Only much later did Mr. Mubarak’s foreign affairs minister admit that the Algerian supporters had not, in fact, attacked any Egyptians and that the media had concocted the whole thing. The rumor was that the press had done so to curry favor with Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, who had been angered by some hostile jeering from Algerian fans.
When the 2011 revolution took place, soccer fans discovered some new hard truths: Apart from a small number of players who sided with the revolutionaries, most Egyptian soccer stars, who owed their wealth and fame to the masses, declared their support for the dictator — even as his police officers were shooting demonstrators dead. Mr. Mubarak also enjoyed the support of a number of managers and media people for whom soccer represented a cash cow.
The president did not have all the supporters behind him. Some of the most intense fans, known as the “ultras,” played an outstanding role in the revolution. These young people used their long experience of confronting police violence to defend the demonstrators in Tahrir Square with astonishing courage and effectiveness.
The way the ultras transitioned from the cause of soccer to that of revolution caused great anxiety to those in power after the fall of Mr. Mubarak. During the post-Mubarak period of rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in February 2012, the Ahly ultras of Cairo were attacked at a match in Port Said in disturbances in which 74 died — bloodshed that their leaders believe was planned by the security apparatus to punish them for their revolutionary role.
As with everything in Egypt now, soccer is a mirror that reflects the fierce struggle between the ancien régime and the revolution, between the old vested interests and those who dream of the future. That future will arrive eventually no matter how some try to stop it.
Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the novel The Yacoubian Building and other books. This article was translated by Russell Harris from the Arabic.