When my friend and I arrived at the stadium for our first Africa Cup of Nations match, we were immediately overwhelmed by the crowds, which were reminiscent of Egypt’s derby games between Al-Ahly and Zamelek — a matchup that Cairenes have not witnessed firsthand in years, as fans have been banned from attending matches since 2012. The venue was so crowded that it overwhelmed security personnel, who had not expected such a turnout for a match between two non-Egyptian teams.
We entered the tunnel into the stadium, a hectic passage — and one we know all too well. This is where 20 Zamalek fans died in 2015, when clashes erupted at an ENPI vs Zamalek match, when security tried to forcibly disperse the Zamalek Ultra White Knights Fans, whom they deemed dangerous. The tunnel evoked their memory, and the fans around us started reciting verses from the Quran.
During the first round of qualifications, the match between Senegal and Algeria in the Air Defense Stadium became a focal topic of discussion among football fans, since the African Cup of Nations draw, held in Egypt this year, determined that the teams would go head to head in the same group in the first round of the tournament. Without much betting on the fact that these two will make it to the finals played on July 19, with Algeria winning the 2019 AFCON, many fans talked about attending this earlier match, as did my friends and I, deciding that this would be our first match in the tournament. The two teams have several international stars: Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez of Algeria and Liverpool’s Sadio Mané of Senegal, as well as many experienced players in different European leagues. We were on a date with a high-class game.
Fans’ interest in a game played on Egyptian soil, without the national team, may be indicative of a shift in appetite toward international football, paralleled with some disillusionment with the local team and a generally severed relationship between national games and fans.
This shift might have gotten more Egyptians to appreciate good Algerian football, despite years of tension.
These tensions were fueled by the several decisive matches where both teams went head to head in important tournaments. In 1990, Egypt qualified for the World Cup at the expense of Algeria’s “golden generation” of players. The Desert Foxes had previously qualified for the Cup in 1982 and 1986, and then won — for the first time in the history of Algeria — the AFCON cup in 1990, when the country hosted the tournament.
In 2001, the famous Annaba game in northeast Algeria during the World Cup qualifying game, which ended with a tie, was considered the most violent match — on and off the pitch — in the teams’ history. Algerian spectators tossed rocks and bottles at Egyptian players during the match, which led to repeated pauses in the game. And then in 2010 in Sudan, Algeria blocked Egypt’s team from qualifying to the World Cup, after yet another violent game that included clashes between fans of both teams.
Historical tensions between Egyptian and Algerian fans meant that organizers, not hiding their anxiety, sat the Egyptian fans in second and third-class seats, while Algerian and Moroccan fans were seated in one half of the first-class seats and Senegalese fans in the other half of the first-class seats.
As soon as I took my seat, the stadium announcer asked the audience to stand for the Algerian national anthem. I prepared myself to hear the boos and heckling common among fans expressing their feeling toward their arch-enemies. But I was wrong. There were no boos and no heckling, as though the tumultuous history between the two teams did not mean much to the Egyptian fans attending the game.
A young man sitting next to me told me this was his first game in a stadium and that he specifically chose this game, instead of Egypt’s matches, because he does not feel as loyal to the national team as he does to football. He added that he won’t waste his money to watch the Egyptian team’s unentertaining football, and that he doesn’t care if the national team wins the championship or not.
“I am here to watch Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, and others. I came here to enjoy real football,” he said.
While the game’s first half went by uneventfully, with the start of the second half, fans burst into joy when Youcef Belaïli scored Algeria’s first goal in the game. The Algerian goal was welcomed on Egyptian soil by the Egyptian fans, who applauded at the end of the game for the winning Algerian team.
After leaving the stadium, I saw some Egyptians taking pictures with the Algerian fans. I got curious as to what these enchanted fans make of the history of tensions between the two teams, without getting many answers. An Algerian fan told me about the warm welcome he received from the Egyptian fans, contrary to his expectations, while an Egyptian spectator said that the previous clashes were just fabricated by the media. “We are all brothers who share a lot of things, especially our love for football,” he said.
Algeria’s game with Senegal encouraged me to attend another first-round game in Cairo’s Al-Salam Stadium between the Ivory Coast and Morocco. I entered the stadium, only to see few Ivorian fans, while the rest were Moroccan and Egyptian fans.
Still, not that many Egyptian fans were present, who were, after all, sidelined by some of the AFCON’s organizing committee’s measures to regulate attendance. The committee first raised eyebrows when it announced that the cheapest ticket in the first round of the tournament would be LE200 in the third-class seats, which are home to the most enthusiastic football fans from the underprivileged social classes. Fans in Egypt objected to prices, with some threatening to boycott the tournament. As a response, the prices were reduced to LE150 for a third-class ticket in matches where Egypt is playing, and LE100 for other games. Third-degree tickets jumped again to LE200 in the eighth-finals and the quarterfinals, LE300 in the semifinals, and LE500 in the final match. The committee also insisted that besides tickets, fans needed IDs via an online registration process where attendees would provide personal information about themselves.
The entrance to the game between Morocco and the Ivory Coast was more organized, and the access to the seats easier. Once we entered, an hour before the game started, the Moroccan crowds started cheering for their team and players.
I met an old friend whom I know through our mutual love for football, and it was also his first time attending a game in the stadium, although he lives close to Cairo Stadium. I asked him with astonishment about why his stadium debut was in a game where Egypt was not playing. He said that he feels closer to the “real football fans” than fans in Cairo Stadium, whom he described as a “cinema audience”, referring to the highly regulated, unspontaneous spectators who are now allowed to attend local matches after the authorities opened up the games again to a limited number of fans.
He also talked about his relationship to the national team, which deteriorated in the long gap between its last significant achievement in 2010 and 2018, when the team qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Egypt’s national team had been a dream team for many in the lead-up to 2010, with three consecutive AFCONs secured in 2006, 2008 and 2010. My friend’s interest in international football increased inversely with his waning interest in Egypt’s football scene.
During the game, my friend reacted and cheered whenever either of the two teams were on offense. At minutes 20 and 74, he chanted for those who were killed in Egyptian stadiums in several incidents of failed crowd control by a security apparatus naturally skeptical of football fans. Minute 20 refers to the number of Zamalek fans killed in 2015 in Cairo, and minute 74 refers to the number of Ahly fans killed when a number of Al-Masry fans attacked them at a game in Port Said in 2012, with no security interference to stop the violence. 2012 also marks the year fans left the stadiums. At minute 22, my friend shouted Mohamed Abu Treika’s name, Egypt’s former striker and midfielder who led the national team to several victories during his career, and who is now on Egypt’s terror list for alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Twenty-two was also Treika’s number when he played with the national team. My friend celebrated the end of the game when Morocco nabbed a 1-nil win.
My friend thinks the attacks on fans have played a part in the waning interest in Egyptian football. For him, this year’s AFCON was a golden opportunity for the local football scene to shine again, but the lack of fans in the stadiums didn’t help.
Since the Port Said massacre in 2012, the local Egyptian football scene has also suffered from the declining level of competition, and the league lost ticket revenue after fans were banished from games.
Eyes then turned to international leagues, especially as rising star Mohamed Salah became a hero in Europe, playing right wing for the English Premier League team Liverpool. This opened the door for fans to compare between Salah and other players in top leagues, and accordingly, become more familiar with them. As a result, a whole new generation has grown up with no affiliation with Egyptian clubs; instead, they are intensely loyal to international teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and others.
As we left the stadium after the Morocco-Ivory Coast game, my friend told me that he would try to attend other matches. I told him that I wanted to attend the national team’s game if they qualify. He dismissed the idea, saying that he feels alienated from Cairo Stadium and its audience. I didn’t have to overthink my position because the national team left the tournament by the round of 16, defeated by South Africa. This was Egypt’s second loss at home in the tournament after Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) won over Egypt in 1974, a match played in Egypt one year after the October War with Israel.
One could argue that fans may have been more sad about Egypt’s loss in 1974 than our 2019 loss, and that claims of sexual harassment against national team player Amr Warda got more attention than Egypt’s loss in the most recent tournament.
One could also argue that 2019 African Cup champion Algeria’s stellar performance, from the qualifiers to the final, earned the support of some Egyptian fans. A number of Egyptian fans attended the final game with Senegal on July 19; some were looking to cheer for an Arab champion, while others were looking for a good game. And others simply wished to bid the stadium farewell.