RIVALRIES: Al Ahly, Zamalek and football’s most violent match

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Updated: November 4, 2013
Al-Ahly and Zamalek

Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

The Cairo derby is a fiercely competitive rivalry between Egypt’s two most successful clubs, Al Ahly and Zamalek. As well as the regular league fixtures, so dominant are the two teams they often play each other in domestic and continental club competitions and the familiarity that has brought often raises the stakes between the two teams even further. 

Ever since their creation, both clubs have dominated in the Egyptian Premier League, the country’s top-flight football league, with Al Ahly currently shading Zamalek with regards to honours and victories over their arch rivals.  They are also the two most successful club teams on the African continent having won the CAF Champions League a combined twelve times between them, with Al Ahly winning the competition seven times and Zamalek five.

The rivalry can be traced back to the turn of the twentieth century when the British were the colonial rulers of Egypt. Al Ahly were formed in 1907 and were the first locally run club within the country. The name itself translates as “The National” and their red kit was a reference to the pre colonial flag. They were seen as the club of the people against the occupying British and was a focal point for working class men to gather together to pursue their nationalistic goals

Zamalek took their name from the exclusive neighbourhood within Cairo where the ruling elite lived and worked and were founded in 1911. They wore white kits and were seen as the club of the ruling elite and foreign British. It was also the club of the widely loathed King Farouk and was originally named in his honour before being changed to Zamalek after his abdication. As well as attracting those in the higher echelons of society, Zamalek also attracted the intellectual and cultural elite too.

The main focal point for the fixture is events off the pitch. Recently fans have become more organised and have begun to model themselves on the European “Ultras” model. Assad, an Al Ahly Ultras leader, believes that it is his club who are the true representation of the city of Cairo, “Ahly was the first ever [football club] to be 100% Egyptian so it is very nationalistic but Zamalek has changed their name so many times”.

Legendary Zamalek player Ayman Younis explains his experiences of playing in the fixture in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s “If I went to the stadium I had to go without my car as they [Ahly fans] break everything…When I was playing I had a lot of problems with Ahly fans. In 1990 I found my BMW car on its side and they signed it ‘Ahly fans’” Respite didn’t come away from the ground though for Younis. Up to 5000 Al Ahly fans attacked his home one night whilst he was relaxing with his wife and children. Missiles were thrown at the property and the police were called.

In recent time the fixture has begun to spill out away from the first team arena. Assad admits that Ultras target youth team matches as they are less high profile and less likely to be as heavily policed “there’s always horrible fights there”. The teams also have basketball franchises and again due to their low profile there is less security and therefore Ultras target those fixtures. Only a few years ago a Zamalek fan was set on fire and severely burnt when Ahly’s fans, distraught after their team narrowly lost 68-67, invaded the court and showered their rival’s supporters, players and management with homemade Molotov cocktails.

The roots of the Arab Spring in Egypt can be seen as far back as 2007 and the Ultras had a big part in it. As well as fighting each other, fans would battle the hated police, figureheads of the hated regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Ultra leaders were detained, chants within stadia were increasingly political and the subsequent hardline police crackdown was seen by some as a sign of fear by the police of the disaffected youths they were fighting.

Ultras filled the vacuum of opposition to the regime where none had been allowed previously. Assad states that “The whole concept of any independent organization didn’t exist, not unions, not political parties”. Then as young, intelligent literate youths began to rise against Mubarak, the Ultras stepped in with orchestrating the mass protest. “The two biggest political parties in Egypt are Al Ahly and Zamalek” believes Assad.

Ultras from both teams united and marched on Tahir Square to partake in the now infamous Battle of the Camels. Leader of the Zamalek Ultras, The White Knights, Ahmed explains that “we knew that when the police ran, we made them run, we were teaching them (the protesters) how to throw bricks.”

Post Mubarak though, the traditional violence between Al Ahly and Zamalek has returned. With the police dispersing as a force to be reckoned with, a power vacuum has been created and has been filled by organised crime who wish to paint Ultras as little more than common thugs.  Events came to a head tragically on 1 February 2012 in a match between Al Ahly and a smaller team Al Masry.

Before, during and after the match Al Masry fans armed with knives and stones attacked both Al Ahly fans and players alike and 79 people were killed. Eyewitnesses said police did nothing to reduce levels of violence and refused to open gates to allow Al Ahly fans to escape. The Egyptian FA immediately cancelled the remainder of the season.

There were suggestions of collusion between pro Mubarak Al Masry fans and the police. Many Al Masry fans were not searched by police prior to entry and several members of the Al Ahly playing and coaching staff said they did not believe that the police did enough to protect players and fans alike. The fixture also took place on the first anniversary of the Battle of the Camels, further fuelling speculation that this was a case of revenge being a dish best served cold by those pro Mubarak factions who remained in government.

Demanding justice for those killed at Port Said, again Zamalek and Al Ahly Ultras united in protest. Ahlawys and White Knights marched in unison through the streets of Cairo chanting both football and political slogans before staging a sit in outside the Egyptian parliamentary building. They demanded full justice for events at Port Said and a reduction in violence by the authorities towards Ultras.

In a unique joint statement, the two groups demanded “full transparency in revealing the outcome of the investigations. We will neither accept dis-regarding the disaster and turning it into football riots nor making a scapegoat to protect those who orchestrated the attacks.” They threatened joint action that would “not allow any football activities to resume unless complete justice is done”.

The rivalry between the two clubs can be seen as more than just football. The two sets of fans have a mutual loathing based upon political and social attitudes towards each other. The rivalry is intense, fierce and at times spills over into the lives of ordinary players and fans alike. At key times however, that passion and political intelligence can be used as a force for wider society as the two groups unite against a common foe. Maybe, despite their obvious enmity towards each other and their differing origins, they are both the clubs of the people and those highly intelligent, politicised people belong to a unique, vibrant and proud city.

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