Ahmed Fathi: Egyptian exile driven by Port Said tragedy
Ahmed Fathi watched fans die in the Port Said riot. So how does he feel sitting on the bench at Hull? He tells Richard Rae football matters more to him than ever
Just over a year ago, Ahmed Fathi stood on a football field in Port Said, Egypt, and saw supporters being attacked and killed in the stands. Under attack themselves, he and his team-mates ran for their lives to the dressing room and watched helplessly as the mortally injured were carried in to die on the benches above which they had hung their clothes.
The final death toll following the match between Fathi's Al-Ahly, from Cairo, and local side Al-Masry was at least 74. Some maintain it to have been higher. When he has seen and heard things he will never, can never, forget, does making the starting line-up for a team to which he moved on loan in another country matter that much?
"Yes," says Fathi, immediately. "It matters even more. I feel different to before [Port Said], yes, but when people die, you cannot stop. You must complete your life. For me that means I must play."
The 28-year-old pauses, searching for words. "You must understand how important work is in Egypt. Always, but especially now. Football is my work. You must concentrate on your work and do it better. When you have good work, hard work, everything can be normal."
For Fathi, who has won 91 caps and been an automatic selection for his country in midfield and defence since making his debut as a 17-year-old, normality is a place in the starting XI, for Al-Ahly and for Egypt. Hence his intense frustration at being used only off the bench since he and striker Mohamed Nagy – known by his nickname of Gedo – joined compatriot Ahmed Elmohamady on loan at Hull City in January.
At the time, the Egyptian domestic league was still suspended, as it had been since the riot, and with World Cup qualifying matches on the horizon, Fathi and Gedo felt they needed to play games. Hull chairman Assem Allam's contacts in Cairo made a short-term transfer to East Yorkshire feasible, and the impact made by Gedo, who has scored five goals in his nine appearances for Hull, has been considerable. Fathi, despite the constant urgings of supporters back in Egypt – letters arrive on City manager Steve Bruce's desk on a daily basis – has thus far been used only as a substitute. He didn't even get on the bench against Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
From a footballing point of view then, the fact Fathi is relishing the prospect of playing for his country in a friendly against Switzerland this week, followed by a World Cup qualifier against Zimbabwe next Tuesday, is understandable. That he is not also apprehensive may be less so, because the causes of the violence were political and emotions continue to run very high.
Earlier this month there were further riots in both cities when a court handed down 21 death sentences but cleared a number of those accused, including seven policemen. Despite the volatility, however, Fathi insists he is not concerned about any possible danger. "For me Egypt is safe, absolutely. Cairo is a big place, and there is only trouble in one small area, and not big trouble. It's not like it looks on the news. Even in the area where there is trouble, you can go in the car, you understand?
"It is true that no one knows what will happen in Egypt, but for now it is difficult but safe. Kids go to school, no problem. For you, maybe if you go to Egypt, you are afraid, but me, no. I am safe. I know everyone. I know what happens. It's not like before, when you could stay out until three or four in the morning, no problem: now, just until 12. But maybe after a few more months everything is OK. Everything will be normal. I hope."
Asked what he remembers of the events of 2 February 2012, Fathi speaks quietly. "We knew there would be a big problem with the match in Port Said. They are always difficult, but one of our players, who played for three years in Port Said, he knows the people, he told me he was afraid for this match, that friends in Port Said had told him it was no good for us to play.
"We travelled one day before, everything is OK. We go to the match, everything is OK. But when we go to warm up, already it is difficult. I went to the referee and said we should not play: he said it was OK, it was his choice, we can play.
"The start is delayed, but the first half is OK because the fans for Al-Ahly had not arrived. There can be many problems when you travel from Cairo to Port Said. They arrived after the first half, and then there is trouble. Many, many troubles."
Seeing the early confrontations, some of the Al-Ahly players, Fathi recalls, stopped trying, believing that allowing the opposition to win might defuse the situation. It did not. At the final whistle a number of Al-Masry supporters, some armed with knives, sticks and stones, began attacking Al-Ahly players and fans, who fled where they could.
Fathi, having made it into the dressing room, recalls only general impressions amid the noise and chaos. "I remember the security disappeared. Maybe they were afraid. Or maybe [it was] not an accident.
"I remember injured supporters coming [into the dressing room] and I think two, maybe three, died. I remember it is four in the morning before we are taken away from the stadium in army vehicles. I remember going to see families of people who died before I went home." He spent the next 10 days making such visits.
Several of his team-mates, including fellow internationals Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat, said they would never play football again. Al-Ahly's coach, Manuel Jose, who was among those who were attacked, asked to be allowed to return to Portugal. "I have to think about my life differently now," he said. "Although everybody loves me greatly here, this experience has changed my life completely."
All three of Hull's Egyptians are heading home this week. Gedo, national coach Bob Bradley has said, will lead the line in the match against Zimbabwe, which will be played at the Borg El-Arab stadium in Alexandria. For Elmohamady, the national team has an important role as a uniting force in the country. "When we play, everybody is together, all fans back us. We need to go to the World Cup to make the people happy. This is what we hope."
Last month, to the surprise of some, the Egyptian domestic league resumed, albeit behind closed doors. Al-Ahly are also playing their fixtures in the African Champions League, adding to Fathi's frustration.
"The league had to start, because we have a national team, we have big matches coming, the World Cup in Brazil. And it has started, and everything's OK.
"Now Al-Ahly play Champions League again. They probably would like me and Gedo back, but we have contracts with Hull. But it's a problem for me because I'm not playing. But I came from Egypt to play."
He shrugs. "I'm not surprised about Gedo. I know he is a very good player – physical, fast, and when he has a chance, he scores. In Al-Ahly he has many more chances. Here, I tell him, 'There will not be so many chances. Here you have a chance, you must score', and he has. He's a good player.
"I train very hard, I play for the reserves, but I stay on the bench. I don't know why. The manager in Egypt told me before I came here, 'Don't go please, the league will start again, Champions League too, and I need you'. But I take my choice and come here. That is football. But I need to work. I have to work."
Egyptian Tigers: Hull's loanees
Position: Midfielder Age: 28
Egypt: 91 caps, 13 goals
Clubs: Ismaily SC (2000-2007), Sheffield United (2007, loan), Al-Ahly (2007-present), Kazma Sporting Club (2007-2008, loan), Hull City (2013-present, loan)
Hull: 3 appearances
Position: Forward Age: 28
Egypt: 31 caps, 17 goals
Clubs: Ala'ab Damanhour (2002-2005), Al Ittihad Al Sakandary (2005-2010), Al-Ahly (2010-present), Hull City (2013-present, loan)
Hull: 9 appearances, 5 goals
Position: Winger Age: 25
Egypt: 43 caps, 2 goals
Clubs: Ghazl El-Mahalla (2004-2006), ENPPI (2006-2011), Sunderland (2010-11, loan), Sunderland (2011-present), Hull City (2012-present, loan)
Hull: 33 appearances, 3 goals
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