Skip to main content

After deadly riot, Egypt's football season opens -- with no fans in the stands

By Holly Yan, CNN
February 2, 2013 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Presidential spokesman promises investigation of police who beat protester
  • Saturday's matches are the first since last year's deadly football riot
  • 74 people were killed after a Port Said team beat a Cairo team in 2012
  • A judged sentenced 21 Port Said residents to death for their roles in the riot

(CNN) -- In a country obsessed with its premier sport, Egypt's football season kicks off Saturday to heavy anticipation -- but without any fans in the stands.

Instead of the roars of raucous crowds, players take the pitch to the relative silence of secure military stadiums.

Saturday's matches are the first since a gruesome riot at a football match last year that left 74 dead and 1,000 injured.

Dubbed the "massacre at Port Said," the riot in February 2012 broke out after Port Said-based Al-Masry defeated Cairo's Al-Ahly, 3-1.

Fans from both sides bashed one another with rocks and chairs, and many of those who died fell from the bleachers while others suffocated.

An Egyptian protester throws a tear gas canister toward riot police during clashes outside the Egyptian presidential palace on Friday, February 1, in Cairo. Egypt has been embroiled in violence since last week, the two-year anniversary of an uprising that led to the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak. An Egyptian protester throws a tear gas canister toward riot police during clashes outside the Egyptian presidential palace on Friday, February 1, in Cairo. Egypt has been embroiled in violence since last week, the two-year anniversary of an uprising that led to the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt unstable after days of protest
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Egypt unstable after days of protest Photos: Egypt unstable after days of protest
Peaceful protests turn violent in Egypt
Cairo police appear to hit, drag nude man

While the football rivalries between the cities have been a mainstay, recent political upheaval has only fueled the fire.

Last week, a judge issued death sentences for 21 Port Said residents for their roles in the riot.

Those verdicts incensed Port Said residents who blame security officials -- not fans -- for the mass tragedy.

Fear and loathing in Egypt: The fallout from Port Said

Decades of strife

The history of tense relations between Port Said and Cairo date about 60 years, as residents of Port Said have felt betrayed by Egyptian security forces during a series of wars with Israel.

Thousands of residents were displaced several times because of the Suez War, the Six-Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition with Israel, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Residents of Port Said, in the northeastern corner of the country, believed security forces did not adequately defend their city.

In addition, some say Cairo has not invested enough in Port Said's infrastructure, and that their city doesn't reap enough tax benefits from trade with international ships that pass though Port Said via the critical Suez Canal.

Some also contend that Port Said is still getting the cold shoulder from Cairo after a 1999 assassination attempt of then-President Hosni Mubarak, who was visiting the city.

Could Egypt fall apart?

Security forces push protesters back
Port Said rages against Morsy
Young people rebelling in Egypt

Molotov cocktails and fire at the presidential palace

The new football season also kicks off amid new turmoil embroiling the country.

The latest spate of violence started during demonstrations last week to mark the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Protesters angry with the slow pace of change and with President Mohamed Morsy's actions clashed with Morsy supporters and police in the cities such as Suez and Ismailia.

Those clashes, combined with furor over Port Said death sentences, led to scores of deaths.

The chaos snowballed through Friday, when a fire broke out at the entrance of the presidential palace as protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at security forces.

Authorities responded with tear gas and water cannon, and Egyptian TV aired live footage of security forces beating a naked man on the ground.

A presidential spokesman on Saturday deplored the video of the man being beaten, calling it "shocking."

The government assures "that what happened was an individual behaviot and does not represent the ideology of the police force," spokesman Yasser Ali said. He promised an investigation into the incident.

The protests are the latest in the seesaw struggle between Egypt's first democratically elected president and dissidents who say his leadership is a throwback to past dictatorships, particularly the reign of Mubarak, who was toppled two years ago in the popular revolt.

Protesters attack presidential palace in Cairo

More than just a game

In Egypt, football isn't just a sport. It's an escape from the economic, political and social tumult wracking the country.

The only times traffic virtually disappears from Cairo streets are when residents break their daily fasts during Ramadan and when the city's two main teams -- Al-Ahly and Zamalek -- take the field.

Saturday's matches feature both those Cairo teams -- Al-Alhy against Ghazl El-Mehalla and Zamalek against Al-Ittihad Al-Sakndary.

But while football has both unified and polarized parts of the country, fans now must cheer or lament from afar.

CNN's Ben Wedeman, Reza Sayah and Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Egypt
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 0026 GMT (0826 HKT)
An Egyptian court sentences at least 528 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to death on charges related to violent riots in the southern Egyptian city of Minya.
March 24, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour sends letter to the family of jailed Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy.
March 9, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
CNN's Sara Sidner talks about stepping in for Al Jazeera reporters since they have been barred from working in Egypt.
March 15, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
How are the Arab Spring nations faring? What successes can they boast -- on democracy, economic progress, stability and women's rights -- and what challenges await?
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
A Cairo court has banned all activities by Hamas in Egypt, calling the Palestinian movement that runs Gaza a terrorist organization.
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
Lawyers representing Muslim Brotherhood members in a jailbreak case call for the judges to be changed.
February 20, 2014 -- Updated 1005 GMT (1805 HKT)
Three Al Jazeera journalists face terrorism charges after being arrested in December. CNN's Sara Sidner reports.
February 9, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
CNN's Christiane Amanpour son the Egyptian government's actions towards journalists.
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
At least four people died and 14 were wounded by a blast on a tourist bus in the resort town of Taba, authorities say.
February 16, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Mohamed Morsy taunts officials who placed him in a soundproof glass box during his trial on conspiracy charges.
February 11, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
An Oscar-nominated film portrays a revolution squeezed into its margins,but that's where it started, writes H.A. Hellyer.
January 22, 2014 -- Updated 0818 GMT (1618 HKT)
"Democracy" is meaningless unless the right people are entrusted with implementing it, says Aalam Wassef.
February 6, 2014 -- Updated 2130 GMT (0530 HKT)
Egypt's military quashes a newspaper report that quoted Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi as saying he would run for president.
January 26, 2014 -- Updated 0802 GMT (1602 HKT)
Muslim Brotherhood supporters (background) clash with supporters of the Egyptian government in Cairo on January 25, 2014.
At least 49 people died in violence on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution, state media says.
January 18, 2014 -- Updated 2204 GMT (0604 HKT)
Voters have overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, a spokesman for Egypt's electoral commission says.
January 15, 2014 -- Updated 0108 GMT (0908 HKT)
Egyptians vote for the first time since the military ousted Morsy. CNN's Ian Lee reports.
January 15, 2014 -- Updated 0111 GMT (0911 HKT)
A study suggests Egyptians are far more likely to support military rule than people in many other Mideast countries.
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
CNN's Becky Anderson speaks to Amre Moussa about what went into the creation of Egypt's constitutional draft.
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
Egyptians have high hopes that the referendum will put an end to the bloodshed, but will Egypt be back where it was at the start of the revolution?
January 13, 2014 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
International correspondents demand Egypt release three journalists they say have been detained arbitrarily for two weeks.
ADVERTISEMENT