A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

73 Dead After Football Clash in Port Said: The Intersection of Revolution and Soccer

 UPDATED with video at end.

We Americans take (our version of) football pretty seriously, as all the hype leading up to Super Bowl Sunday this week reminds us, and in some places (Texas comes to mind, and Alabama in Bear Bryant's day) it approaches a sort of civic religion, but even so, here we don't usually kill each other over it. What the rest of the world calls football, however, is another matter. In Port Said today at least 73 people are dead after fans stormed the field after a game between the popular Ahly and Masry teams, As the violence unfolded in Port Said, another Premier League game between Zamalek and Ismaily in Cairo was suspended at halftime, and then the bleachers reportedly caught fire. League play has been suspended and Parliament is going into special session.

In Egypt today, of course, nothing is apolitical. The "Ultras," or fanatical, organized supporters of the major football clubs have been involved in the Revolution from its early days. (James Dorsey's definitive The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, which I think I've linked to on occasion before, is the go-to for the background, though so far he has nothing up about today's catastrophic match.) They seem to blur the boundaries between football booster clubs and street gangs, though something similar is not unknown in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The sporadic and sometimes disappearing nature of public security in the past year adds to the problem, and one Parliamentarian from Port Said has said that police and security forces either were not present or abandoned the scene, leaving the Ultras to battle it out with no one to impose order. On Twitter the revolutionaries are blaming it on SCAF; I expect SCAF to blame it on foreign influences before the day is out. But while the absence of security may encourage conspiracy theories, the people killing each other are the Ultras and other fans, after all.

During the height of the revolution last January and February, there were only a few days (January 28 and February 2 among them) when the number of dead in one day reached or surpassed 73. And that was a Revolution, not a soccer game.

For the record, Masry defeated previously undefeated Ahly 3-1.

UPDATE: Video from Youm 7.  There are obviously police present early in this clip as the stands empty onto the playing field. The clip shows lots of running and milling about but no obvious bodies on the ground, but then toward the end all the stadium lights go out. Did somebody have the bright idea to turn off the lights? Did it cause a stampede? Stay tuned.

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