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Soup of This Day #132: I Can’t Believe The News Today

February 2, 2012

Port Said c1910
Port Said, Egypt, depicted on a postcard from c1910 – Image: Unknown, c1910. Image cropped by Longworth72.

There are days when writing a blog about sport and drawing parallels to life in general is a little bit difficult. Days when Egyptian football matches turn into bloody riots, killing at least 74 people.

Try working that into a parable.

Better authors might be able to pull that off – This blog though is not going to win a Pulitzer Prize. Not because its author is not American. That’s a common myth, that you need to be American to win a Pulitzer for literature. You don’t – You just need to steal the identity of an American.

Please don’t try that – Successive versions of The Parent Trap have shown us all that such tomfoolery will only end with people re-kindling a failed marriage. Or something.

See, somehow I’ve gone from an murderous civil fracas to a joke involving Hayley Mills. It’s awkward and a tad bit discordant. Maybe that’s fitting though because killing 74 people at a football match is discordant too. Football is a sport – It’s an entertainment – That’s why we watch it. Taking life is at the other end of the human scale, even for those who like Dexter.

The match was between Al Masry of Port Said and Al Ahly of Cairo. The 2 clubs are in Egypt’s Premier League and are derived from markedly different backgrounds. Al Ahly are considered to be 1 of Africa’s most successful clubs. They were formed in 1907 out of student unions and have grown to encompass an estimated 50m supporters worldwide. They have won 36 national league titles, 25 more than 2nd-best Zamalek. Their home, Cairo Stadium, holds 75,000, a figure regularly exceeded and their organisation is said to be efficient and principled. Some refer to them as ‘the club of values’. There is a darker side to Al Ahly though and at the heart of that shadow are the Ultras. These are groups of fundamentalist fans, who ascribe political and social values to their football team – Values that they are prepared to defend via whatever means they deem necessary.

Al Masry have won no league championships since their formation in 1920. Port Said is a cosmopolitan city that in a seafaring age was Egypt’s gateway to the world. Rudyard Kipling, who might have won a Pulitzer if he had pretended to be a Yank, once said:

‘If you truly wish to find someone you have known and who travels, there are two points on the globe you have but to sit and wait, sooner or later your man will come there: the docks of London and Port Said.’

This global nexus has a population of around 600,000 as opposed to the 6.7m of Cairo and Al Masry’s home is correspondingly modest – Just 18,000 can occupy the all-seater Port Said Stadium. Despite this Al Masry is well supported, being 1 of Egypt’s 5 main clubs.

The overnight match between the 2 clubs was in this smaller stadium. Al Ahly, in spite of their away status, were favourites, the undisputed kings of Egyptian football were sitting in 2nd in the domestic Premier League, while Al Masry trailed 13 points behind in 7th. It was no surprise then that Al Ahly scored 1st, going 1 up after 11 minutes. That was to be the only score from them though and Al Masry fought back to level in the 2nd half, making it 1-1 after 72 minutes. Then they twisted the proverbial knife, going 2-1 up after 83 minutes. Salt was sprinkled onto the wound in the 2nd minute of stoppage time with a 3rd and Al Masry had themselves a shock win.

This is where it gets ugly and I have to be very careful – In 1989, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster 1 newspaper in particular did not get it’s facts straight before going to print. It famously directed fault at Liverpool FC fans and proclaimed that they had stopped ambulances from attending to the wounded and that some had urinated on the victims. None of that was even remotely true and these days The Sun has a very low circulation on Merseyside, with the majority of Liverpool fans refusing to read it.

It’s hard to see the Port Said Stadium disaster being misread in the same way – Supporters, some allegedly armed with knives, flooded onto the pitch. There were attacks, flares and subsequent fires, and a stampede. All of this can be seen in footage.

Even with this film though it will take months to work out exactly what has happened and maybe nobody will ever get to the bottom of it – In the UK, almost 22 years after Hillsborough, it’s still unclear exactly what went wrong and who was responsible. And Hillsborough wasn’t about violence. Fans didn’t spill on to the pitch to confront players or officials at Hillsborough – They did so to flee a horrible crush that was most likely created by poor decisions at the senior official level. The early picture from Port Said is that of Al Ahly fans provoking Al Masry fans via insulting banners. Subsequent to the match it’s possible that it was the victorious Al Masry faithful who went on the attack.

Yep, the fans of the team that won may have started this. Which might be a clue that this was not really about the football.

Whatever the cause in Port Said someone, somewhere, will proclaim that ‘outsiders don’t understand’. There will be political tensions or religious tensions or ethnic tensions or clustered migraines or who the hell knows what used to try to explain this suspension of humanity.

And they’re right – I’m an outsider and I don’t understand, any more than I did the Heysel Stadium disaster where those purporting to support Liverpool FC were responsible for the deaths of 39 Juventus fans. I get football – I know what formations to use, I understand the deployment of a sweeper and I know how to curve a ball 1st 1 way and then the other, changing direction mid-flight. I love football – I just don’t understand crowd violence at a football match.

My friends won’t understand either – Some of them will mutter that it’s ‘down to soccer, as it always is’ and that the proof is that such violence isn’t seen at Australian Football League games.

Which is true, in part at least.

Actually such violence isn’t seen at any Australian sporting events, including what my mates call soccer. And I reckon that if lawn bowls was the national sport of Egypt then we’d be looking today at the aftermath of a murderous bust-up on the bowling greens between the same 2 sets of fans. This lends further credence to the assertion that the riot was less about the football and more about… well, other stuff that I don’t understand… something more than a failure on Al Ahly’s part to employ a conventional 4-4-2 formation…

Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, football’s governing body has described last night’s events as a dark day for football. Not for the 1st time I think he’s wrong – 74 people went to a football match last night, to a sporting contest, and they lost their lives – That is a dark day for Egypt and humanity in general.

There’s craters across the surface of Mercury. I can tell you a bit about how they were formed – Planetary impacts seem a bit easier to explain than killings at a football match. 1 of the craters I could describe is named for Rudyard Kipling – The English observer of a colonial empire might not have got a Pulitzer but in 2010, 74 years after his death, he got himself immortalised with a dent in the nearest planet to our Sun.

Oh and he won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature too.

I Can’t Believe The News Today

One Comment
  1. I just don’t know what kind of world we live in where these disasters still happen…

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