Tens of thousands of Egyptians gather in a concentrated area, marching together and shouting in support of their faction. Authorities attempt to subdue the throbbing crowds, but they are prepared to fight in the streets until their voices are heard. This scene has played out in Egypt countless times before, not by protesters in Tahrir Square in opposition to the government, but by Egyptian soccer fans, known as “ultras,” in support of their clubs.
What does this have to with the current mass protests? With no single sport dominating the United States, it’s difficult for Americans to understand the effect soccer can have on a nation and its people, especially in Egypt. Sports Illustrated’s Dave Zirin explains in an insightful piece detailing the past and present of what the game means to Egyptians: “Egypt’s most prominent team, Al Ahly, started its club in 1907 as a place to organize national resistance against British colonial rule. The word Al Ahly translated into English means ‘the national,’ to mark their unapologetically political stance against colonialism.”
It’s no wonder, then, that soccer fans are at the front of the marches to bring down President Mubarak. In an interview with al-Jazeera that has been cited by several media outlets – including SI and blogs from the New York Times, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle – Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattahsaid: “The ultras — the football fan associations — have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment.” He even joked, “Maybe we should get the ultras to rule the country.” The six-minute video can be found on the foreign affairs website War in Context. El Fattah has fled Egypt, but has been active on his @alaa Twitter account and is now preparing to return, triumphantly tweeting, “Taking off now soon we’ll be in liberated egypt.”
Meanwhile, from a sporting perspective, the unrest has prompted the cancellation of the Egyptian national team’s next match, a February 9 friendly versus the United States, of all countries. The team is one of the best in Africa, but is also known for an ugly incident in 2009 where the Egyptian fans attacked rival the Algeria team in Cairo, straining relations between the countries. Algeria got its revenge in their next match by eliminating Egypt from World Cup contention.
On a personal note, I saw Egyptian soccer and its supporters first-hand during my semester abroad in London, when the national team played England at Wembley Stadium last March. Of course, there are few “footie” fans more enthusiastic than the English and the atmosphere was particularly buzzing in the months before the World Cup.
Despite being significant underdogs, Egypt scored first and the small but proud cheering section went crazy. The English team was stymied for the entire first half and the home crowd was stunned. You could feel the anxiety throughout the entire ninety-thousand seat stadium. Despite England’s eventual 3-1 victory, the team playing for nothing but pride didn’t go down without a fight and made themselves heard against mighty odds.
Perhaps this is another parallel between the ultras and the protesters – and why they continue to march.