Security fears force indefinite delay of Egypt's football season

 

Cairo

Top-flight Egyptian footballers suffered a setback this week when sports officials announced that the Egyptian Premier League, one of the most high-profile domestic championships in Africa, would be indefinitely suspended as a result of the deadly stadium disaster that killed 74 supporters in Port Said earlier this year.

The decision, which was applauded by friends and family of those who died, came after a freeze imposed immediately after the deadly clashes which erupted when Port Said's local side played against Cairo-based Al-Ahly in February.

It threatens to reopen old wounds between proponents of the ban – who include Al-Ahly supporters who fiercely protect the memory of their fallen comrades – and players who argue that Egypt's domestic game is suffering serious damage.

Members of the Ultras Ahlawy, the die-hard football fans who were among those knifed and stampeded to death by groups of opposition supporters and thugs in February, say it is distasteful to resume the Premier League while those accused of orchestrating the killings are on trial.

Their cause has been backed by numerous politicians, including high profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal opposition factions. "Stopping the league is a sign of respect for the martyrs," said Ahmad el-Sha'er, a 23-year-old ultra.

A total of 73 defendants are on trial accused of involvement in the stadium disaster. They included nine senior security officials, three officials from Port Said's club and a number of fans.

Yet Mr El-Sha'er said he believed the trial was a "fake" investigation. Voicing the suspicions of many Egyptians – large numbers of whom believe the clashes were planned by pro-Mubarak stooges loyal to the old regime – he said the trial was a smokescreen to protect the real culprits.

Large numbers of top-flight players have started sailing against the prevailing political winds, voicing their opposition to any continued suspension.

Hundreds of footballers and coaches gathered outside the Ministry of Sport in Cairo this month to demand a resumption of the league. They included some of Egypt's biggest stars.

Expressing the desperation shared by many of his colleagues – some of whom have had little top flight action for eight months – veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan told Egyptian newspapers the ban was harming the sporting economy. "Football helps more than five million Egyptians earn their livings," he said. "It's important that it resumes."

Yet he and his colleagues face an uphill battle – one that has been made even harder by the Hillsborough-like wave of grief which was triggered by the Port Said disaster. In the minds of many Al-Ahly ultras, events earlier this year have become indelibly stained by the legacy of the Mubarak regime. As a result, any perceived slight is ferociously opposed.

When the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) announced last month that it intended to resume the Premier League, die-hard Al-Ahly fans launched fireworks at the organisation's Cairo headquarters and then stormed the building.

Days later, when the one-off Super Cup competition was due to take place in Alexandria, the ultras threatened to disrupt the match.

Following the continued protests, officials delayed the start of the league until 17 October. But the eventual kick-off has now been put back indefinitely.

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