Monthly Archives: February 2012

Football as Humanity: Zambia 2012

I think all of those who watched yesterday’s African Cup of Nations Final match between Ivory Coast and Zambia share my feeling: we were privileged to be allowed to participate in one of the more remarkable moments in modern sporting history. It was one, of course, that went largely under the radar in the U.S.: it was not aired here, there was little coverage in our press, and if you tried to grab someone excitedly on the street and shout “Zambia won!” you probably would have gotten a blank stare — though of course it depends on what street.

Jonathan Wilson, who provided excellent coverage of the tournament, wrote this beautiful match report for The Guardian. And Peter Alegi has written a striking account of the experience of watching the game, which includes videos of the grueling and intense penalty kick shoot-out. There was a tenderness, even love, to this experience that was truly remarkable: one felt that the teams were, in a way, suffering through this moment together, and deeply. All knew that any victory would mean suffering for the other team. When Zambia’s goalie Mweene took and made a penalty kick, the Ivory Coast goalie shook his hand afterwards. And singing, prayers, looks upwards, accompanied each step of the ordeal.

There is plenty to worry about with regards to African Football, as Achille Mbembe noted in a sharp interview entitled “Un tournoi de nains” — “A Tournament of Dwarves?”  Yet Zambia’s victory was significant, among other things, because nearly all the players on the team are based in Africa (notably in South Africa) rather than in Europe. It was a striking contrast to the Ivory Coast team, with a star-studded roster of names familiar to anyone who watches the English Premier League. The victory should raise new questions in the long running debate about what the best way for African nations to cultivate successful teams on the international level.

The historicity of the moment, of course, had everything today with the those who haunted it: the 1993 Zambia football team, nearly all of whom had perished in a plane crash just off the coast of Gabon on their way to the Cup of Nations in that year. Leigh Montville wrote a remarkable piece about that for Sports Illustrated. And you can hear the 1993 BBC report about the deaths here. A generation of Zambia’s greatest footballers was decimated. And, as Al Jazeera reported, the 2012 team prepared for yesterday’s final by making a pilgrimage to the coast to lay wreaths in memory of the dead.

As Paul Darby — a brilliant historian of African football — noted in a comment on the Football is Coming Home Blog, the contrast with what happened the day before within the super-monetized spectacle of the Premier League could not have been more striking. “A tale of two handshakes – the one that never was between Suarez and Evra and the one between Mweene and Barry during the penalty shoot out – highlighted the gulf in class between events in Libreville and planet Premiership.” It’s worth taking some time to think through precisely what the intersection of these two events means about the current state of global football, and it’s possible futures.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the evening came afterwards, though. Joseph Musonda, a 34-year-old veteran of the team who knew this would likely be his last chance to play in an African Cup of Nations final, was hurt in the opening minutes of the game. He had to watch, in pain, powerless, from the sidelines for the next 2 hours. But his teammates made sure he could ultimately celebrate a victory. And his coach, Herve Renard, made sure that he could be amongst them as they prayed in thanks, honoring the generations who had brought them to this moment.

Why SCAF Is To Blame

Since its founding in 1907, Al Ahly S.C. has been known as ‘the people’s club,’ representing resistance against the many forms of colonialism that have long plagued the African continent. Initially the first sporting club to allow Egyptians to join, Al Ahly remains the most popular of Egyptian teams, wearing to this day the red kits that honour the pre-colonial Egyptian flag.

It is no great surprise, then, that Al Ahly Ultras – officially founded by Mahmoud Ghandour in 2007 (who is reported to have died in Wednesday’s violent attacks) – were on the front lines of both the initial “#Jan25” uprising and the continuing movement intended to topple the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Egyptians inspired by Tunisia and over 30 years of corrupt governance have utilized every resistance tactic at their disposal, including the well-organized and nearly fearless ultras.

Ahlawy are not the only ultras to make up the first line of defense against police and the military – fans of the comparatively upper-class Cairene neighborhood Zamalek’s team, Al Ahly’s longtime rivals, have also defended the ongoing revolution with zeal. It is, in fact, the truce called by Zamalek after years of bitter rivalry with Ahly in the aftermath of the devastating Port Said riots this Wednesday that symbolizes much of the complexity surrounding what the international media has largely misidentified as a “football riot.”

What happened is still unclear, though this much is known: On Wednesday, after Al Masry beat Al Ahly 3-1, attackers armed with knives and clubs stormed the pitch. Whether the armed crowds were only Al Masry Ultras or not is still being debated – after all, why attack the spectators and team members of the losing squad? Several players – Egypt’s beloved philanthropist and supporter of the revolution Mohamed Aboutrika included – were injured as they rushed into their dressing rooms (Aboutrika, shaken by theattack, has since announced his retirement from football).

At least 73 people were killed (martyred, as many observers and mourners on Twitter, Facebook and the Egyptian blogosphere have noted), and many more injured. As those under attack – mostly Ahlawy, though this type of violence rarely leaves anyone untouched – attempted to leave, it was discovered that most of the exits were locked, and the stadium lights were shut off in the midst of the chaos.

The videos coming out of the Port Said stadium are horrendous. Such violence is not unheard of in the aftermath of football matches in Egypt (or anywhere in the world, for that matter), but it took even seasoned football announcers by complete surprise.

The Ultras in Egypt do not share the sometimes-fascist roots of their counterparts in Europe. Although politics also play an incredible role in the breakdown between fans of the various teams throughout Egypt, football had been frequently utilized by Mubarak’s regime as an attempt to distract citizens from their daily oppression, as well as stoke tensions between neighborhoods, cities, and nations. But this has not always been successful.

One of the many Ahly chants routinely heard at football matches is “Down, Down With the Junta Rule!” Last year I cited Dave Zirin in a short piece discussing Al Ahly’s political history on the media blog Africa Is A Country. Zirin’s observation that Egyptian football clubs and anti-government organizations “walked together in comfort” remains a reminder of why many Egyptians – myself, a product of four generations of Ahlawy included – do not for one moment believe this is “just” football fanaticism.

The video above displays clearly the riot-gear clad security forces doing nothing while Al Ahly’s players sprint to the relative safety of their dressing rooms. This is not the first time in the last year Egyptians have seen this happen. Recall that on 28 January of last year, many were paid and armed to attack protestors in Meydan Tahrir and other gathering areas.

Mubarak and his supporters not only used this as ‘proof’ that they were in the right, but also to allege that Egyptians were ‘not ready’ to lead themselves. This moment is clear in the minds of many at a moment when SCAF has echoed these same arguments in an attempt to retain power and maintain the Emergency Law that has been in place since 1980. SCAF now promises another ‘crackdown,’ though, as usual, it does not specify what particular entity will be targeted.

Al Ahly Ultras asserted in a public statement: “[SCAF] want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression. Given this and the broader public rage directed at the military for protecting and serving only itself, we must expect that SCAF will be cracking down on the very people mourning the loss of life and continued absence of their liberty in Egypt. Indeed, the protests throughout the nation that immediately followed the riot turned into all-out battles between military police and ultras. As one interviewee warned The New York Times, “They turned the biggest fan base in the country against them.”


For more details and perspectives, please read James M. Dorsey’s articles on the Foreign Policy and Time websites, here and here, as well as Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani’s thoughts on the LRB blog.


Crossposted from Africa Is A Country.

The Ultras, the Military, and the Revolution

The violence at Port Said last night has generated enormous commentary on twitter, and a beginning of media coverage of varying quality. One of the best summaries came last night at The Lede blog of New York Times — it’s quality largely due to the fact that it is composed of the tweets and videos generated on the ground in Egypt. You can read a good critique of a different, earlier, article by the New York Times — which like a certain number of other reports focused on the supposed “savagery” of the ultras and downplayed the political context and valences of the event — here.

But the key to all of this is to understand the long history of the participation of some ultra fan groups in politics — particularly last year, when they were at the leading edge of the protests against Mubarak — and the particular conjuncture in the Egyptian revolution we now face.

Yesterday produced horrific images of bloodshed. Today began with some striking gestures of solidarity, such as the one pictured here by @Sarahcarr of banners of two rival clubs — Zamalek and El Ahly — sewn together.

But as a write, there are new clashes in Cairo, where protestors are blaming the military regime for the deaths. Many commentators have been arguing that what is going on is about politics, not football, and of course on some level that is true. But what is also clear in Egypt is that football and politics are so intertwined in this story that there is almost no way to untangle them.

We’ll have more material here on the situation in the next days. In the meantime, James Dorsey’s blog “The Turbulent World of Mideast Soccer” is a great resource for analysis and context on the situation: read all his posts under Egypt to get a sense of the many events that have led up to what happened yesterday. In the meantime, twitter — including @Beltrew who is reporting from Cairo and @amasays, a Duke graduate student, who is providing excellent updates from various sources in Egypt — remains the ideal source of information for an ongoing situation that is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Egypt.


Much has gone on since I wrote this post, but I wanted to make sure to share this photo of graffiti commemorating the dead from the Port Said incident.