War Minus Bullets: Clash in Cairo

Football means more to the fans of teams than their lives. They love their adopted teams with a passion that equals none. They also hate the major rivals of their team with similar zeal. Kinshuk Biswas looks into the world of football derbies where it’s much more than a Game – It Is War!

Football is not just a game for a lot of us. It is a way of life, a religion where we can escape from our mundane existence to live moments of glory which we strive to achieve but cannot. It is this outlet of our repressed desire for grandeur that makes it the game which is beyond the boundaries of sports. At the forefront of this desire is the team we support. It may be a small local team from the by-lanes of Buenos Aires or the massive behemoth that is Manchester United, supporters are always passionate. This passion and absolute devotion for the team is translated to unmitigated loathing for the main opponents of the teams. We hate the opposing club, their players and their supporters and this feeling is mutual for the supporters of the other team. This is a kind of primal herd mentality which manifests itself when there is a game between our team and the archenemy. This makes murderers out of civilized people and causes entire population of countries and cities to be divided. Welcome to the world of ‘Football Derby’.

The term derby has its origin in an annual horse race held at Epsom, England since 1780 which was founded by Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby. Since 1840, the term came to signify a sporting contest between two teams. How it began to signify an encounter between two bitter rivals is not known. However, in this series we shall study different derbies in the world of football. This will not be a study of statistics and match scores, rather of the socio-political factors behind the rivalries.

The first derby we are going to feature comes from a country which was the cradle of civilization in history and in the throes of revolution recently – Egypt. The ‘Cairo derby’ is the match between Al Ahly Sports Club and Zamalek Sporting Club. Al Ahly was chosen by Confederation of African Football (CAF) as the greatest African club side of the 20th century closely followed by Zamalek in second position. The matches between the two sides divide the entire city of Cairo and the population of Egypt. This is not a very old derby as it started in 1924 in the Cairo League and continued with the founding of the Egyptian Premier League in 1948 but it is amongst the most passionate and bitterly contested ones. Al Ahly is the more successful club with more victories in both the Cairo League and the Egyptian Premier League. It is also the most successful club in the African club competitions. In order to understand the rivalry we need to study the history of both the clubs.

Al Ahly Sports Club was founded in 1907 as a club where leaders of Cairo students’ unions could meet during their struggle for independence from British colonisation. Chosen by a nationalist named Amin Samy, Al Ahly means ‘The National’. The club was always recognised with the freedom and nationalistic movements of Egypt. An interesting fact is that the first chairman of the club was an Englishman named Mitchell Ince who was sympathetic to the cause of Egyptian independence. The club was also known for its support of colonel Gamal Nasser (who later went on to become the President of Egypt) after the army coup of 1952. In 1952, the club decided that only Egyptians would be members giving a further boost to its nationalist image. The club presently claims to have 50 million supporters in Egypt, Africa and Middle-East making it one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Zamalek Sporting Club was founded in 1911 by a Belgian lawyer named Merzbach. The club was originally named Kasr-el-Nil meaning Fortress of the Nile; changed to Mokhtalat in the year 1913. This club was mainly for the non-British European population who wanted their own sports and social club. The club had the policy of having members from all social and ethnic groups of population. After the 1919 revolution, it came under Egyptian control. Then the dynamics of the club changed with the massive influx of members from the higher strata of Egyptian society and nobility. In 1940, was renamed as Farouk Al Awal after the then King of Egypt. This further identified the club as that of the elite class of Egyptian society. After the coup in 1952, the club changed its name to Al Zamalek after the posh Cairo locality where it was located.

Zamalek supporters (l) and Al Ahly fans (r)

The rivalry of the clubs can be attributed to mainly socio-political reasons. Al Ahly, the nationalist club born out of student freedom movements representing left-wing class struggle politics against Zamalek, the club founded by Europeans and having the elite nobility and royalist supporters, essentially the torch-bearers of right-wing politics. Added to this, a lot of people from other middle-eastern and African nations supported Zamalek against the Egyptians-only Al Ahly. During the military regimes, the matches were so charged with tension that many parts of Cairo had to be locked down and a large number of para-military forces had to be deployed. The support of Al Ahly by the Nasser government created a new breed of supporters for Zamalek – ‘the Zamalek Ultra’, the silent protester against the oppressive military regime. Most of these supporters were nationalist Egyptians who would have supported Al Ahly if not for the government policies. In Egypt, where there was no democracy and only oppressive rulers, these football matches were where they could voice their political ideology in a safe manner. During the regime of Anwar El Sadat, the blatant partiality towards Al Ahly was waning and it was completely removed during the days of Hosni Mubarak. During the strict rule of Mubarak, both the clubs’ supporters grew wary of the government and its policies. Then in the spring of 2011, Tahrir Square happened.

A typically feisty Cairo derby

Supporters of both clubs participated in the historical protests at Tahrir Square. Mubarak sent his personal thugs on horses and camels to crack down on the protesters. The supporters for once forgot their hate for each other and stood together against a common foe. The Egyptian Premier League had been suspended for three months and Zamalek were leading the league by six points. Eventually it came down to the derby game on June 29, 2011. Al Ahly had managed to go into the match with a one-point lead overturning the six-point deficit. Zamalek needed a win to try and lift the crown on their centenary year. The match was nearly called off as a fresh batch of protests had started in Tahrir Square. Eventually the authorities thought it was better to keep the supporters in the stadium for the match rather than face their fury as protesters in Tahrir Square. The match ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw and Al Ahly went on to lift their 36th title. Incidentally, the home matches of both the teams are played at the Cairo International stadium, as their previous home grounds which have now become practice facilities do not have the capacity to hold the throng of their supporters. The African Champions League match between the two teams played on July 22, this year was held behind closed doors due to security concerns of the authorities. It was most fittingly described as a wedding without guests, by an Al Ahly official.

Passionate supporters of Al Ahly Club during a derby

What does the future of Cairo derby hold? Will the supporters who have fought together to bring revolution to their repressed country cease to be bitter rivals? We, as neutrals can hope that they be passionate rivals on those days when the teams play against each other. They can shout their abuses and cheer at the misfortune of the opponents. Then they can embrace one another at the end of the match and remember their struggles together, side by side, in Tahrir Square. This is how it should happen in Egypt for a better future in a country embroiled in doubt, taking its first steps in democratic and political freedom, but what will eventually happen depends on the will of the people and the supporters of these clubs.

Kinshuk Biswas

About Kinshuk Biswas

Kinshuk Biswas is an architect by education, a consultant by profession, a quizzer, writer and an absolute football fanatic by choice. Follow him at http://confessionsofastonedmind.blogspot.com