There were several interesting reports this week about the fact that some of the best organized and most effective groups involved in the protests in Egypt came from what some saw as a surprising place: football fan groups. As a report on Gawker noted: “When asked about the role of political groups in organizing protests, prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa abd El-Fatah told Al Jazeera . . . : “The ultras – the football fan associations – have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment.” The article particularly highlights the supporters of the Al Ahly (“The National”), which was founded in 1907 and served as a site for resistance to British colonial rule.
In fact for those who know the history of the region, the connection should come as no surprise: football has long sustained political resistance in the region: not only in Egypt but in Algeria, where it played a vital role in the nationalist movements that led to independence. What perhaps makes this connection somewhat invisible, or illegible, is the broader notion — one sustained both by many forms of sport media as well as by those who critique sport — that fandom is somehow apolitical, or even the antithesis of politics. These reports, however, should be a reminder that football associations have long been, and continue to be, significant civic institutions with the capacity, on occasion, to participate in political change.
The official institutions governing football, meanwhile, now face the question of whether the U.S.-Egypt match scheduled for February 9th should in fact be played. So far it has not been cancelled, and one blogger has argued that the failure to cancel the match is a reflection of the broader “muddled” U.S. policy. This too, raises an interesting question: who do these teams represent? Does the Egyptian team stand for the crumbling Egyptian government, or for those in the streets demanding the departure of Mubarak? And who does the U.S. team stand for, in the midst of our (remarkably limp) engagement with one of the most dramatic democratic movements in recent years?
This all is a reminder of the central role that football can play in constituting the political imagination, as well as shaping political action. Dictatorships succeed by investing an entire national space with their power and their symbols. They insist that they constitute the nation, standing as it’s only true representative. They seek to eliminate any alternative to their regime by rendering such alternatives unimaginable. But football also channels hopes and ideas of particular communities and nations, one that because of it’s theatrical and symbolic power — as well as the fact that it can seem to be simply apolitical, an escape rather than a challenge — is remarkably resilient in such contexts. The Egyptian football team stands for the nation just as Mubarak does, but without the police state. It’s heroes seem like they might be you and me. And when a crowd forms around them, it becomes a kind of alternative national community that, at least during some fleeting moments, can imagine something new into existence.