Ahmed Fathi, a defensive midfielder, ran for his life when he saw thousands of Egyptian opposition supporters streaming toward him on the field. His team, Al Ahly of Cairo, had just lost a local league game in February to Al Masry in the city of Port Said.
Al Ahly does not lose often. It is the biggest and most successful soccer club in Egypt, and it claims to have tens of millions of fans worldwide. But the Masry supporters were not celebrating their victory. Something had gone terribly wrong.
“The fans were coming, sprinting after the match,” Fathi, 28, recalled last week. “I knew they hated me and all the players. All the players ran. I didn’t know what was happening outside. But something was happening outside. After this they killed the boys. Not the men, the boys.”
As Fathi and his teammates took refuge from the Masry supporters in a changing room, one of the darkest incidents in soccer history was unfolding in the nearby bleachers.
Within the hour, more than 70 people, many of them Ahly fans and members of the club’s fan group, the Ultras Ahlawy, lay dead.
“One of the fans came to the room and said, ‘You have a problem outside, someone has been killed.’ And then another has been killed, and another,” he said.
“After this another comes in and he has a wound.”
Fathi slowly ran a finger from the left side of his temple to his chin, to illustrate the gash to the young man’s face.
It was the bloodiest single day in Egypt in the wake of the ouster 22 months ago of President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for nearly three decades. There were widespread accusations that the military-led government that had replaced Mubarak allowed the violence to escalate to justify its powers and undermine the revolution.
In the aftermath, the soccer league’s season was immediately canceled. Play has yet to resume and some clubs are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. But Fathi and his teammates have somehow endured and continue to play on. The team dedicated itself to taking part in the most prestigious competition that remained — the tough African Champions League — and vowed to honor those who died by winning it.
And it did. Last month, the Ahly beat Esperance of Tunisia to be crowned champion of Africa, taking a path to the title that meant fending with protests, conspiracy theories and a coup in Mali during a match on the road.
Not only was it the Ahly’s seventh victory in the club competition — making it the most decorated club in African history — but it also meant the team qualified for the Club World Cup in Japan, where the champions of six regional soccer confederations battled it out through last weekend to be crowned the best in the world. Another title, another chance to honor those who had died, was at stake.
The man who had taken the Ahly this far, who had put them back on track in the wake of the blood bath, who had gotten through to players who had been scarred by the mayhem they had witnessed, was the 52-year-old coach, Hossam el-Badry.
“The club called me to take charge as head coach, but it was very difficult for me to prepare the players emotionally after Port Said,” Badry said the day before the Ahly was to play the Japanese champion Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the Club World Cup quarterfinal.
The Port Said incident had led several of the players to retire immediately from soccer. Among them was Mohamed Aboutrika, the Ahly’s renowned midfielder and one of the greatest players Africa has produced.
As the fans were being killed in Port Said — some crushed to death in a stampede, others stabbed and beaten by the Masry supporters — Aboutrika was said to have held a fan in his arms as he died on the dressing room floor.
For Badry, the answer to getting his players to focus on soccer again was to convince them that redemption for what had occurred could be found on the field.
“I told them I know it is very difficult to forget that day,” he said. “You have to change this bad moment to make something good for them.”
The players who retired were talked into changing their minds. But they returned for an African Champions League competition played on an uneasy terrain. The Ahly’s home group matches had to be held with the fans barred. Then, during an early round of matches in May, the team was stranded for four days in Mali’s capital, Bamako, after a coup. It was eventually airlifted out by military transport plane.
“We remember when we were waiting for the flight to take us back,” Badry recalled with a shake of the head. “Every minute, every hour, waiting for the plane.”
Still, the Ahly won it all, and now came the final challenge of this difficult year, in Japan.
Last week, snow fell heavily on the field at Toyota Stadium in Nagoya before the Ahly’s match against Hiroshima. Inside stood a hundred members of the Ultras Ahlawy, the fan group whose members were killed in Port Said.
For many in Egypt, the Ultras Ahlawy played an important role in the revolution, providing thousands of organized, secular, anti-authoritarian young men to fight on the front lines in Tahrir Square.
The Ultras Ahlawy was formed in 2007. Initially, the Ahlawy was a way of supporting the team with banners and songs and disparaging their great city rival, Zamalek. But it soon turned political when the Mubarak government cracked down on the group. Many of the members were arrested.
“We became what they feared the most,” said the founder of the Ahlawy, who declined to give his real name because he feared reprisals.
The match against Hiroshima was the first that he and the Ahlawy had attended since Port Said. The group had successfully campaigned to have league play in Egypt remain suspended until the completion of the trial of 75 Masry fans and security officers accused in connection with the Port Said deaths. The officers were charged with complicity in the violence, of knowing trouble was likely to occur and doing nothing to ward it off or stop it once the killings began.
“Already a date has been set to announce the verdict, which should be Jan. 26,” the group’s founder said. Around him the Ahlawy sang revolutionary songs, ones that have made the group a famous, and regular, fixture during protests in Egypt.
“We are very optimistic and hopefully the court will bring the justice the victims deserve,” he added. “It will be unimaginable to think of how emotional and special it will be to return to football after 13 months.”
But the group may be too optimistic about the imminent return of league soccer to Egypt, where tension and controversy remain constant elements. Even here, Egypt’s problems did not seem very far away. Alongside the Ahlawy a group of Japan-based students pulled out banners in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, a former leader in the Brotherhood. Scuffles broke out between the two.
Yet, the two factions were quickly united by events on the field. With the game tied, 1-1, Aboutrika, a Muslim who once displayed a T-shirt during an international match in solidarity with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, spun past a defender and scored the winning goal, putting the Ahly in the semifinals against South America’s Brazilian champions, Corinthians.
A double triumph seemed possible — the Africa title and the Club World Cup. But in the next game the Brazilians were too much for the Ahly, which lost, 1-0, and headed to a third-place consolation match against Monterrey of Mexico.
Before that match began, the Ahly players did what they had done in every game since the Port Said incident, putting on a black armband in respect for the fans who had died. In the stands, the Ahlawy stood behind one of the goals, cheering Ahly on. The Ahlawy founder flew a white flag attached to a fishing rod emblazoned with the No. 74, which by his count includes 72 who were killed at Port Said and 2 others who died elsewhere.
But on the field, the Ahly fell short, again, losing, 2-0, its overall lack of practice showing as it repeatedly missed clear chances to score.
The Ahlawy founder packed his flag, still resilient. He said the Ahly would win the African Champions League next year as well and, unlike this time, would also win the Club World Cup, noting that it would be played in Morocco — “like a home game for us.”
He had reason to be confident. After all that had happened in the last year, the bloodshed and deaths, and the continuing chaos, the Ahly’s back-to-back defeats here amounted to nothing more than glorious failure. But Badry, the coach, was more downcast. “I am very much disappointed,” he said. “Of course, we had many opportunities, which we missed.”
Still, for the Ahly, which plays on, more opportunities would seem to await.