The beautiful game turns ugly in Egypt

The "football massacre" of Port Said indicates a bleak future for the country's revolution.

Egyptians protest after Port Said massacre_390 (photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
Egyptians protest after Port Said massacre_390
(photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
The violence that broke out at a recent soccer match in Port Said, Egypt between local team Al-Masry and top-of-the-table rival Al-Ahly resulted in over 70 deaths, and sadly demonstrates that tensions in this troubled country are still high. Anger and frustration and impatience are steadily building among disgruntled Egyptians.
The violence kicked off after an unexpected win by Al-Masry over Cairo-based Al-Ahly, the country’s biggest and most successful team. Rocks and bottles were thrown, in addition to fists, and eventually a stampede broke out as people ran for exits.  In desperation, some fans threw themselves over the railings at the top of the stadium to avoid the crush. Security officers, overwhelmed by events and still hated by large segments of Egyptians, were unable to contain the violence.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since former president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation last year, announced 3 days of official mourning for the country, while the acting prime minister sacked the board of the Egyptian Football Association and suspended all four domestic leagues.
Egypt is no stranger to football violence.  Just two years ago, 35 people were injured in Cairo during protests that broke out in front the Algerian embassy, after the Egyptian national team lost to their North African neighbors in a World Cup qualifying match. But like many football supporters around the world, deep social and political ties connect Egyptian fans to their teams, and to each other.
Notably, Al-Ahly supporters were highly vocal opponents of the Mubarak regime, and were present in Tahrir Square during the early days of the protests. Since political organizations were banned under the Mubarak regime, football supporters used their club affiliations to indirectly vent their opinions and displeasure.
A parliamentary committee is investigating claims that supporters of the deposed Mubarak had planned the Port Said riot in advance and were involved in initiating the violence. Many observers have also criticized the lack of security at the match and the “intentional reluctance” of those officials who allowed the violence to escalate.  .
In the days following the riot, Al-Ahly fans assembled in Tahrir Square to protest against the security forces and the interim military government.  An angry crowd marched on the Interior Ministry and were met by police firing teargas.
Egypt’s military rulers have a lot on their plates now, especially with questionable charges pending in Egyptian courts against 19 American aid workers.  Sternly-worded protests from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made clear over $1 billion in US aid could be at risk.
Football riots on top of increasing crime, a collapsing economy and Islamist victories at the polling booth have made things even more difficult for the unloved military leadership!
Some critics of international soccer may be tempted to shake their heads knowingly and attribute the violence at Port Said to something endemic in the sport itself.  They may point to earlier disasters in Latin America, such as the 76 people who lost their lives in 1996 in Guatemala, during a match with Costa Rica, or the 300 people who lost their lives in Lima, Peru, when violence broke out during a 1964 Peru vs Argentina match.
In the United Kingdom, the 1980s famously brought with it a wave of football-related violence that continues to linger in people’s memories to this day.  This was a decade, however, when Britons were subjected to intense structural upheavals, and anger and frustrations that were being frequently vented on marches and in picket lines also found their way into football stadiums.
Those who believe that there is something about soccer that attracts malcontents or hooligans or those particular inclined to violence are mistaken.  Where the “beautiful game” is played on a national scale, and is an integral part of the local cultural and identity, it attracts everyone.
Unlike American sports, which are as much mechanisms for indulging in conspicuous consumption as they are athletic endeavors, football as it is played and followed around the world occupies a much larger, and much more fundamental, place in the lives of its fans.
Regardless of where the economy stands, regards of whether the government is popular or unpopular, regardless of whether the country is at peace or war, there is always football.  Football provides a constant thread through the weeks and months of a long season, whether the season ends with a cup final or a relegation battle or even just a nil-nil draw in the final match.
As a result, when history cuts across human lives, these individuals will bring their emotions with them when they go to the football stadium to watch their favorite team.
During 2011, the world watched the events in Tahrir Square and across the Arab Spring with equal measures of optimism and concern.  The “Massacre of Port Said” shows us the high price that many impoverished Egyptians are still paying for a revolution that may be slipping out of control.  Hopefully, in the months and years to come, a new normal will be established in Egypt that will bring the stability and prosperity that the Egyptians deserve.
Regardless, though, football will still be there, as it always is, in good times and in bad.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.