Between 2006 and 2010, the Egyptian national men’s football team proved to be a resolute force at the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), winning the continental trophy three times. Fans of this all-conquering Egyptian side remember such names as Essam El-Hadary, Hosni Abd Rabou, Mohamed Zidan, and Amr Zaki. For many, the qualities of marauding midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, exemplified the spirit of the team. Aboutrika, also known as “El Magico”, “Amir El Qolob” (prince of hearts), or, simply, “Arab’s Zidane”, won the CAF ( Confederation of African Football) Africa Best Player of the Year a record four times and scored the sole goal in the final in AFCON 2008 as The Pharaohs edged out the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra. With his status as a legend of Egyptian football, one would have expected that at the concluded 2019 Total African Cup of Nations hosted by Egypt, Aboutrika would have been the face of the tournament, his image emblazoned across the country’s stadia. However, Aboutrika was absent from the tournament, and from the country entirely. Aboutrika has been in exile in Qatar since 2017 and on the country’s terror watch list because of his links with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Aboutrika established a reputation for voicing strong political views. In 2008, in a national team game against Sudan, Aboutrika celebrated a goal by removing his jersey to reveal a T-shirt underneath with a message reading “Sympathize with Gaza”, written in both Arabic and English, in protest of Israel’s ten-day blockade of Gaza. In Port Said, Ultras Ahlawy a fan group founded in 2007 that supported the Cairo-based football club Al Ahly, that Aboutrika represented for ten years gained prominence for its pyros, songs and chants during football games, of which the most prominent was one that went “We Are Egypt.” Ultras Ahlawy had several violent clashes with Egyptian police through to 2011 as the Egyptians took to the streets to end Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule. After the overthrow of Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohammed Morsi, by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) the Ultras Ahlway took to singing mocking songs about SCAF and the police.
On 1st February 2012, Al Ahly travelled to Port Said to face Al-Masry in a national league game. After the match, Al-Masry supporters attacked Al-Ahly supporters with stones, knives and bottles, leading to a massacre that left 74 Al-Ahly supporters dead, and hundreds injured. The Al-Ahly players were also attacked by the Al-Masry supporters, and fled the pitch to the dressing rooms under police cover. One boy who had followed the players in an attempt to flee the violence, succumbed to his injuries, and died in Aboutrika’s arms. Aboutrika, together with two of his teammates, promptly announced his retirement from the game. “This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us,” he cried.
Immediately, people began to question the incident, saying that it could not have been simply fan violence. Why were the Al-Masry fans so heavily armed? Why had the police stood by and done nothing as the Al-Ahly fans were being killed? Why had the escape doors been locked? Who had turned off the lights so soon after the violence started? Some people began to allude a link to the violence to Ultras Ahlawy opposition to SCAF. It was alleged that the Port Said attack was retribution, and police and military officers had facilitated the attack.
On 1st February 2012, Al Ahly travelled to Port Said to face Al-Masry in a national league game. After the match, Al-Masry supporters attacked Al-Ahly supporters with stones, knives and bottles, leading to a massacre that left 74 Al-Ahly supporters dead, and hundreds injured.
The national league was suspended, and no matches played for seven months. Later that year, it was announced that first match would be played on 9th September 2012, and would pit Al Ahly against ENPPI in the Egypt Super Cup final. Ultras Ahlawy protested this decision, and called for a boycott of all football matches until there was justice for the seventy-four people who had been murdered in Port Said. Aboutrika, who had rescinded with his retirement, supported the Ultras, and announced that he would not play any game until the seventy four had received their justice. By siding with a fan group known for its anti-SCAF position, Aboutrika, who a year earlier had publicly campaigned for Morsi, seemed to seal his fate with the ruling military junta.
On July 19th, 2019, The Desert Foxes of Algeria lifted the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations, beating Senegal’s Lions of Teranga via an early goal from Baghdad Bounedjah. I spent a huge chunk of the tournament on the road, and watched matches from Kisumu, Marsabit, Moyale, and Nairobi. In a matatu in Kisumu just before Kenya’s first match in the competition, the driver and his mate were talking about the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations. The friend asked the driver what he thought of Kenya’s chances of progressing in the competition. The driver said, in Dholuo, “I must support our home team, even if they are beaten”.
A few days later, I was in Marsabit. Seated in a kinyozi (a barbershop) in town, I listened to men talk about AFCON. Kenya had just beaten Tanzania, coming from behind to win off two magical goals by Michael Olunga, and there was a euphoric sense of belief coursing through the room. Up next was Senegal, and there was a sense that, though a difficult ask, beating them was not impossible.
Kenya’s match against Tanzania, which was one of the most exciting games of the group stages, was played under a maelstrom caused by Starehe MP Charles Njagua’s xenophobic remarks about Tanzanians, and other foreign workers in the country. In a video that was shared widely across social media, the first-time legislator accuses foreign nationals, notably Chinese, Tanzanians and Ugandans traders of dominating trade in Gikomba and Nyamkima markets in Nairobi at the expense of Kenyan traders and threatens them with eviction.
As we watched the Kenya-Tanzania game, my host and I talked about Mr. Njagua’s comments, and we wondered whether the match had gained added importance because of them. We were both supporting Kenya. His wife, N, however, was not. Kenya, she said, had harmed people from Northern Kenya, and she did not see why she should support a country that had harmed her. The matatu driver in Kisumu had said that he had to support the home team irrespective of the results. But, what happens when the state itself is oppressive and the force behind personal harm?
A few weeks earlier, I had been in Kisumu watching an Elgon Cup rugby match between Kenya and Uganda, and I had remained seated while Kenya’s national anthem was being played, in a silent protest to the injustices committed by the Kenyan state. Yet there I was, having bought a ticket, supporting Kenya. N didn’t know any of this, didn’t know that I had been thinking about this for weeks, didn’t know that when she said that she would rather support Algeria and Senegal and Tanzania and whoever else Kenya was playing against, I felt her frustration.
I wonder what it feels like to be a football fan in Egypt, to be a fan of the Egyptian national team. A major talking point from the African Cup of Nations is how empty the stadiums were. One would have expected more fans in the stadiums, since part of CAF’s reason for changing the dates of the competition from the traditional January to June had been to draw in more fans. In January, the European football leagues occupy attention. However, a combination of high ticket prices and the complicated process of getting fan IDs meant that a lot of fans were locked out. To get a fan ID, one has to supply all manner of personal details to the government, and the risks of doing this in a country with minimal data privacy laws outweigh their interests in watching the game.
The militarization of Egyptian football has played a part in keeping fans away from the stadiums. Writing in African Arguments, a researcher, says, “It is also seen – albeit less obviously – in the securitisation of the sport’s superstructure and infrastructure by the army and security apparatus. Among other things, security forces have been acquiring sports media, specifically TV channels, in the past few years. Through this, they have been influencing the discourse around football by vilifying organised fans groups known as The Ultras and glorifying the regime.”
The military junta in Egypt changed the law making stadiums, in effect, military establishments, and any fans arrested in a stadium would be subject to military trials. The regime’s fear of organized protest has led to the crackdown of fan groups as a political threat. Speaking to Ruth Michaelson of The Guardian, Ziad Akl, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said, “The state is trying to teach you how to cheer…It’s not that the state has an issue with you cheering, it’s that it has an issue with how you’re cheering.”
After the Port Said disaster, the government banned fans from the stadia. This had a knock-on effect on the national team, as, without any fans to roar them on, and national league matches most of the players lacked match practice, The Pharaohs sank to hitherto unimaginable lows. Former Egyptian national team coach, Bob Bradley, describes this difficult period. “Playing games in empty stadiums is not what football’s about—a game without fans has no soul,” he says. “And yet when we prepare for the games, we say we can’t expect our energy to come from our supporters. We have to do it ourselves.”
The military junta in Egypt changed the law making stadiums, in effect, military establishments, and any fans arrested in a stadium would be subject to military trials. The regime’s fear of organized protest has led to the crackdown of fan groups as a political threat.
Later, the national government realized that rather than keeping fans out of stadia, they could instead seek ways to control them. As Michaelson writes, “After years of repeated crackdowns on the extreme fans known as ultras, seen as an insurgent group due to their involvement in the 2011 protests that overthrew the former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the government now views football as a boon to the economy and to its nationalist project.”
On February 8, 2015, fans were allowed back into the stadia for the national team games. The first match, slated to take place at the 30 June Stadium was between Zamalek and ENPPI. Whatever security provisions the authorities had in place for the match proved insufficient, as, before the match, as fans jostled at the entrance, police fired tear gas at them, and in the ensuing stampede, twenty eight people were killed. Even as the police force issued a defense, claiming that the use of tear gas had been to control unruly fans, a video circulated online, showed hundreds of fans hemmed in by barbed wire and police firing straight into the crowd. Zamalek supporters alleged that, like with Ultras Ahlawy in 2012, the violence had been deliberate, intended to punish the Zamalek fans for their perceived revolutionary expression.
Militant football fans were a huge part of the protests, during the 2011 revolution that toppled then strongman Hosni Mubarak, and the subsequent protests against Mohamed Morsi. On the brief occasions when fans are allowed relatively unfettered access into stadia, such as during national team games, fans have been banned from making political chants, and waving political slogans. One of the things that has been interpreted as political slogans is the waving of Aboutreika’s old national team jersey.
During Algeria’s semi-final match against the Ivory Coast on their way to the trophy, Algerian fans were observed chanting Aboutrika’s name. In the 22nd minute of the match, a reference to Aboutrika’s old jersey number, the fans were heard chanting, “Allah Almighty, Aboutrika!” That the Algerian fans were the ones to flagrantly break the ban on political slogans in the stadia is noteworthy. On 16th February 2019, ten days after the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced his intention to vie for a fifth term in office, the Smile Revolution, or Hirak, began. Two months later, Bouteflika was out of office, and in May, his younger brother, Saïd Bouteflika, together with the former head of the secret service, General Mohamed Mediene, and intelligence chief Athmane Tartag were arrested
Some of the anti-government protests took place abroad, especially in France, where, on 8th March, 10,000 people demonstrated in Paris. During the Desert Foxes run to the final of the continental showpiece, occasions of celebrating the teams win turned into episodes of anti-government protest. For instance, after celebrating the team’s defeat of Cote d’Ivoire to reach the semi finals, thousands of protesters flocked the streets of Algiers to demand a civilian government. In France, after the team’s victory over Nigeria in the semi-finals, thousands of Algerian fans descended the streets of Paris, Marseille, and Lyon, and after clashes with French police, 282 people were arrested across the country.
Algeria has a particularly complicated relationship with France. The French colonized Algeria for 132 years until a very bloody independence war earned the Algerians their freedom. The far-right in France has taken advantage of the raucous celebrations by Algerian supporters to stoke anti-immigrant rhetoric. Marine Le Pen’s The National Rally issued a statement where it said, “Far from being only manifestations of joy of simple football amateurs as the majority of commentators have described, they are real demonstrations of force in which the objective is to ostensibly signify a massive presence and a rejection of France.” Far-right politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan was stark, echoing Donald Trump by declaring that Algeria supporters should return to Algeria.
Ever since Algeria’s independence, Algerians have migrated to France, and millions now, by some estimates, live in France. In 2005, the number of people of Algerian descent living in France was put at 1.9 million people, which was 3.5% of the total population. This dual identity held by these immigrants is seen in the setup of the Desert Foxes. Riyad Mahrez, the national team captain and star player, was born in Sarcelles in France, while Ismaël Bennacer, who was voted player of the tournament, was born in Arles in the south of France.
Marine Le Pen’s The National Rally issued a statement where it said, “Far from being only manifestations of joy of simple football amateurs as the majority of commentators have described, they are real demonstrations of force in which the objective is to ostensibly signify a massive presence and a rejection of France.”
No French-Algerian footballer, however, is as famous as Zinedine Zidane, who was born in Marseille. Zidane, or Zizou as he is affectionately known, played his last match as a professional footballer during the 2006 World Cup final where he was red-carded for a headbutt on Italian defender, Marco Materazzi. Zizou was a stalwart of the team that was dismissed by French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen as not being a team of Frenchmen. Writing about Zidane for Chimurenga in 2006, Grant Farred observes that Zidane, “cannot escape his own public naming: the meaning of his name, “Zinedine Yazid Zidane,” self-proclaimed “non-practicing Muslim” married to a Catholic Spanish-French wife Véronique Zidane (née Lentisco) and the father of four sons, three of whom have obviously Christian names, of which two are distinctly Italian in their flavour – Enzo, Luca, Théo and Elyaz.”
Thus, he, Zidane, “stands as the time before which is, because of history, the time of another violence: colonialism, and the event, the headbutt, “was a space into which the world was inserted, a space and a time into which Africa (an Africa far removed from Zidane’s Maghreb and Algeria, but an Africa familiar to his colleagues Thuram and the Senegalese-born Patrick Vieira), and South Africa in particular, was thrust, with a full and rare historical force.”
For Farred, the headbutt was not just a headbutt. Rather, it was an entry into the racism the French national team players had faced in the course of their careers, and an entry into the colonial history between France and its former colonial subjects. The symbolism of Aboutrika’s jersey and the chanting Algerian fans went beyond Aboutrika’s legendary status. It served as a metaphor for how the Egyptian revolution had failed, and how Hirak movement would not, could not fail.
It has been expressed, that sports fosters unity between participants, that sporting events between nations lead to greater relationships between the countries involved in the said competitions. George Orwell, for one, disagreed with this premise. In his essay, “The Sporting Spirit”, he posits that, rather than fostering healthier relationships between the participants, sports is an unfailing cause of ill-will. He says, “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”
Furthermore, it is easy for one to observe, just from watching sports casually, how the entire enterprise came to replace war in our psyches. In football parlance, for instance, one team attacks, while another defends, a player may shoot, volley, or take aim at goal, and there is a tactician who plans the tactics on the (battle) field. The Zimbabwean academic Evans Chapanga has an interesting analysis of the war metaphors that are used by commentators in Premier Soccer League (PSL) matches in Zimbabwe. He writes:
“Metaphors of war conceptualise most kinds of sport. War metaphors are not only used as far as description of players, their emotions and the actions on the football pitch are concerned although, these are, of course, the dominant image recipient fields. It can be argued that the whole tournament, footballers, their emotions, their characteristic traits, actions on the pitch and activities of spectators are transformed into a war scenario through the commentary.”
Still, it is isn’t quite war, for as Chapanga observes, “In reality, it was observed that while the proliferation of war metaphors in soccer heightened the electric atmosphere in particularly high profile matches, they tended to gloss over complexities and largely exaggerated the social contests. Frankly, in soccer there are no combatants and no massacres as dramatised eloquently by the professional commentators. War metaphors in football tend to go overboard in terms of their description.”
It can be argued that the whole tournament, footballers, their emotions, their characteristic traits, actions on the pitch and activities of spectators are transformed into a war scenario through the commentary.”
It is not possible, nor completely moral, to view Egypt hosting the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations without thinking about the ways in which football and politics intersect. Port Said in 2011, Aboutrika’s jersey, Zidane’s headbutt, Algeria’s AFCON win, all these things, despite starting out as footballing actions, transcended the game. That Egypt hosted the 2019 competition, even while taking into account all of CAF’s gimmicks with AFCON hosting rights is in itself an event. Egypt’s military regime motivation for hosting the African Cup of Nations, was described by Amnesty International as “sports washing”, a script that has been performed elsewhere in the world. The term first cropped up in media parlance when Amnesty International accused Abu Dhabi of trying to sportswash their “deeply-tarnished image” by pouring money into English club, Manchester City. This all came in the wake of an expose by German publication Der Spiegel about the subterfuge and lack of transparency in City’s financial dealings. Later, the same charge would be levied against UEFA, and Azerbaijan, with critics questioning why the European football body granted the hosting rights of one of its most prestigious events to the autocratic petrostate. In the same spell, we think about Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup, and, more directly, Egypt hosting the African Cup of Nations.
Questions about the intersection between nationalism and football were not raised only by AFCON. At the Women’s World Cup, American stalwart Megan Rapinoe voiced her opposition to Donald Trump by saying she would not honor an invitation to the White House if the team won, which they ended up doing. In Brazil, during the trophy ceremony for the Copa America which had been won by the hosts, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro was roundly jeered by the 70,000 fans at the Maracana. The national team coach Tite adeptly rejected a hug by the president, midfield playmaker Philippe Coutinho squirmed in his presence, and defender Marquinhos openly ignored the president.
After the conclusion of AFCON in Egypt, Samir Sardouk, an Algerian fan was sentenced to one year in jail and fined 50,000 dinars for raising “papers that could harm national interests in front of the public.” Sardouk raised a banner during a group stage match at that read: “There is no God but Allah, and they will come down.” The rulers had come down in Algeria, and perhaps in Egypt too. Football remains as an arena for political expression for a long time to come.