Wednesday's shocking violence after a soccer match in Port Saed, Egypt is tragic but hardly shocking. Until FIFA and the countries themselves take security seriously, such a horrific event will only repeat itself.
Four years ago during my first visit to the Middle East, I was invited to see two of Jordan's biggest soccer clubs, Al-Faisaly and Al-Wahdat, face off in the country's most fierce rivalry.
Volunteering in a mostly Palestinian refugee camp, I was a de-facto supporter of Al-Wahdat, a team that represented those I worked with. Going in, I knew the allegiance of the Palestinians went way beyond the sport. For them the flag, jersey and team was their identity and in some ways represented their aspirations of being seen as equal to their Jordanian counterparts. Their team was intertwined with the very core of their Palestinian identity. Once at the stadium, it didn't take me long to see how intense the refugees' bond to their team really was.
New to the city and the region, a friend from Arabic class and I had been nonchalant about the match in general but particularly the our seating arrangements. Tipped off before hand that the fan bases of these two hated rivals were always unruly, it was recommended to us that we pay for a premium ticket. Uncertain implication behind the warning we grudgingly went along. At 50 or so dollars, the tickets were priced far above the means of most Jordanians yet well below what a comparable ticket to an NBA or NFl game in the States might cost. As it turned out, the seats were well worth the investment.
The day of the match, the police presence was suffocating in and around the stadium.
Even in our deluxe seats, the tension around us was palpable. Vitrolic jeers and even lit flares were being hurled back and forth around the stadium. Some sort of hard metallic objects landed a few rows down in our own section setting off a hail of curses from a genteel looking gentleman below us.
As kickoff grew nearer, the police moved in, in a menacing display of authority with the hope of quieting the crowds. For most of the first half, the police presence had a calming - if not intimidating effect - until a harsh foul 40 minutes into match.
Incensed with the by the overbearing tackle, and right around half-time, the Wahdat fan base began a menacing rhythmic chant that wasn't intended for the players or the Al-Faisaly fans. It wasn't even about the game. It was about the betrayal the felt by their 'Palestinian' Queen Rania.
"Atalaqhu - Atalaqhu - Atalaqhu." Translation: divorce him, divorce him, divorce him. It was a clear message to King Abdullah. The Palestinian crowds didn't accept him as king. The match was no longer about soccer. It was now political and highly charged at that.
Being of Palestinian decent, many Palestinians view Rania's marriage to King Abduallah, a Hashemite, as a disloyalty to their people. Reminding the Hashemite Jordanians that their beloved Queen was really of Palestinian decent (a fact that the Royal Family works hard to downplay) was the most humiliating insult in the book.
Such defamation however, was not tolerated by the Royal Family. As I later learned, the King's brother was in attendance supporting Al-Faisly. Furious over the perceived treasonous dissent of the al-Wahdat fans, the King's brother ordered an all out assault on the rebellious fans. As the half came to a close, thousands of policemen in full riot gear stormed the stadium mercilessly beating al-Wahdat fans (and innocent bystanders in the Wahdat section) at random. Shrieks and cries for help rang out as bloodied and beaten fans scrambled for the exits. Stains of blood flew everywhere. The genteel man in front of us was again up in arms. This time in clear favor of the attack. The play on the field continued without pause.
Expecting the assault to be the top story in the following morning's news, I was shocked to find the following page four blurb: "Small disturbance in Wahdat, Faisaly match. Faisaly prevails."
Unfortunately, the violence wasn't limited to Jordan's internal ethnic strife.
Two years later, I decided to try my luck again, this time with a large group of about 20 American study abroad friends in Cairo, Egypt.
The match between Cairo's beloved Al Ahly club and its Tunisian counterpart Espérance, was for a spot in the Semifinals of the African Club Cup. Once we had arrived at the game, we immediately recognized our error in judgement in bringing girls (Culturally women do not attend soccer matches in the Middle East. In fact, the six girls in our group were probably the only six in stadium of tens of thousands).
As we pulled up near an entrance to the stadium, a rapacious crowd was bursting to break free from behind a barricade patrolled by police in full riot gear. By the looks of it they had been there for hours, crammed behind a barricade confined to a small space and waiting in the hot sun.
The arrival of American girls created a struggle to be let free which the barriers failed to hold. Soon we were swarmed by young males attempting to take pictures and inappropriately grope the girls in our group. After heated verbal confrontations, a few smashed cameras, and even one or two punches thrown, the police finally came to the rescue opening up an ad hoc VIP entrance for us. After the game, we found no such protection and were accosted by swarming crowds eventually forced into hiding in a back alley for over an hour before the crowds had dispersed.
As Americans, we were protected by the police and left relatively unscathed. The brave Tunisian fans who traveled to support their side weren't afforded the same luxury. Many were kicked and badly beaten.
Shortly before the revolution in Tunisia, I was once more convinced to attend a soccer match (after all, I am a sucker for sports). I was promised that Tunisian fans were different and that soccer matches in the sleepy capital city of Tunis were far more orderly. While I am sure for the most part that they are, this particular match was a rematch with of the previous contest with Al-Ahly this time making the trip. Once again, the police were out in force. Like in Egypt however, they were more an attempted show of strength rather than an actual deterrent and were powerless to stop hundreds of Espérance fans who pelted the few Egyptian supporters who made the journey with batteries, flares, and various pieces of garbage. Compared to the first two matches I attended, this experience was fairly calm and I made it home without incident. When I raised the issue of fans throwing objects at the opposing Egyptians, it was met with indifference, an indication this type of behavior was not only common but accepted.
It's hard to believe that this kind of violence was limited to the three games I went to over a five year period. In fact I know its not. After Algeria won in controversial fashion during the qualifying match for the last spot in the 2010 World Cup, widespread rioting injured several dozen Algeria nationals injured and set off a diplomatic incident between the two nations. For most of the spring, fans in Egypt would gather around TVs after several more incidents and storming of the fields forced the Egyptian Soccer Federation to ban fans from attending period.
Therefore, while it was horrifying to hear that over 75 people died Wednesday night, given Egypt's general unsettled security situation, it was hardly surprising. Leaving the match in Tunis, an ominous feeling that something worse would happen was very much on my mind. Sadly, that came true last night and now 75 lie dead and 1000 more injured. To think that 75 dead is 1/15 of the total number that were killed during Egypt's revolution is chilling. And for what?
Violence in sports, particularly in soccer, is nothing new. Nor is violence limited to, or a trademark of, the Middle East. But given the volatility in the country and region, the lack of a strong police presence since the revolution (particularly in Egypt) and the anger of a people that has been repressed for so long, we can only expect that unless drastic action is taken, this mindless violence will get worse.
Without canceling the sport, a move that would only deepen societal ills and general animosity towards the Government, FIFA must be swift and forceful in working with host countries to guarantee that such violence on this -- or any -- scale never happens again.
Photo Credit: David Dietz