CAIRO: The government’s decision to lift a six-year ban on fans at domestic matches in Egypt from September is a welcome boost for the country’s football-mad supporters, but many remain skeptical over how it would be implemented.
But previous empty promises from the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to allow fans back into the stands have left the governing body with a shattered reputation, and many are now questioning if there will be any real change.
Domestic matches have been played behind closed doors since the 2012 football tragedy in Port Said, when more than 70 Al-Ahly fans were killed after being confronted by rival Al-Masry supporters after a league match in the coastal city.
The ban was briefly lifted in February 2015 before being re-instated when more than 20 Zamalek supporters died in a stampede after security forces fired tear gas before a league game at Cairo’s Army Defense Stadium.
The sports ministry said up to 5,000 fans will be allowed to attend league games from September. However, the ministry did not provide any further details amid doubts that attendance could be restricted.
Some chairmen of Egyptian clubs, including Zamalek’s firebrand president Mortada Mansour, suggested that attendance be restricted to registered club members or university students, thus depriving many football enthusiasts from buying tickets and watching their beloved clubs from the stands.
Mansour and several other chairmen said restrictions need to be put in place to avoid crowd trouble. However, many believe such worries are not justified given that Al-Ahly and Zamalek hardcore fan groups, mainly blamed by authorities for past riots, have already been dissolved.
“Why are they panicking? The ultra groups they hate do not exist any more so there is no reason to worry. We should be all given an equal chance to buy tickets for football games,” said Marwan Magdy, a 35-year-old supporter of Cairo giants Al-Ahly.
“If they can’t secure a match with 5,000 fans, how can they expect to make a bid to host the World Cup?” he added, referring to a bold assertion by Sports Minister Ashraf Sobhi that Egypt was considering submitting a bid to stage the 2030 World Cup.
Some other mechanisms were implemented in the past but have seen little success, including an online website Al-Ahly launched through which their fans could apply to buy tickets using a card issued by the club. Critics argued it was too complicated.
Despite the absence of fans over the past six years, the usual heated rivalry between Egypt’s traditional powers Al-Ahly and Zamalek has grown on social media platforms, with both sides’ fans trading insults before and after every game.
The exchanges are another reason some are worried that lifting the ban could lead to a return of violence.
“Imagine if those who insult each other day and night on the social media come face-to-face. There will be other disasters,” said Karim Sobhy, a 26-year-old fan from Zamalek.
“I really miss the sight of fans cheering on their teams at stadiums, but I’m equally worried over what could happen should rival fans meet again. We don’t want another Port Said.”
Many still believe lifting of the ban was necessary to improve the quality of the game after years of “dull matches.”
“Do you remember when many Egypt players buckled under pressure at the World Cup when we lost all three games? This was partly because they were not used to playing before fans,” said Rady Abdel-Gawad, a die-hard follower of Ismaily, Egypt’s third most successful club.
“The fans will save the future of Egyptian football. The players really need to play in electrifying atmospheres.”