Egyptian soccer appears posed for renewed conflict with the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and the government floating a proposal to split the premier league into two groups in a bid to reduce fan attendance and weaken militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened support groups.
The EFA said the proposal was part of discussions with the ministers of sports and interior El-Amry Farouk and Ahmed Gamaleddin aimed at agreeing on a resumption next month of professional soccer that has been suspended since 74 fans were killed in February in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
The EFA said in a statement published on its website that it would meet with the ministers again in the next ten days to set a date for the resumption. Militant supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC have vowed to prevent the return of domestic matches as long as justice has not been served for the 74 dead.
The dead were Al Ahly fans who died in the brawl that erupted at the end of a match against Port Said’s Al Masry SC. The brawl that got out of hand is widely believed to have been instigated in a bid to teach a lesson to the militants who played a key role in last year’s mass protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as in subsequent protests against the military and the security forces.
More than seventy people, including nine mid-level security officials, are on trial for their role in the brawl in a slow-moving legal process that has left fans and the victims’ families frustrated. Militant soccer fans constitute one of Egypt’s largest civic groups after the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Farouk said the league could be split into a group led by Al Ahly and one led by its Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek SC. “We are discussing how to reduce the number of teams in the 2012-2013 season to minimize fan attendance,” Mr. Farouk told reporters.
Zamalek’s administrative manager Hamada Anwar warned that the suspension of soccer was “a disaster” that had hit the clubs financially. He said a resumption of the league was needed to avert a financial crisis. “Besides the clubs, the national team will be badly affected by the championship stoppage. It’s important for all parties and we must work hand in hand to reschedule the league during the short time remaining,” Mr. Anwar was quoted as saying on Zamalek’s website.
Players have organized in recent weeks to demand a resumption of soccer because it threatened their pay and performance. The move has exasperated relations between fans and players that were already strained because a majority of players remained on the side lines of the uprising against Mr. Mubarak or in some cases went as far as supporting the former autocratic leader.
The effort to get the league restarted despite supporter objections comes as militant soccer fans have booked a number of successes in achieving their demands, which include reform of the police and security forces, depriving the police of responsibility for stadium security, a clean-up of corruption in Egyptian soccer and the removal of EFA and club officials associated with the former Mubarak regime. The militants have in recent weeks repeatedly attacked the offices of the EFA, Al Ahly’s training ground and the premises of media organizations.
Besides thwarting efforts this fall to lift the ban on domestic soccer, the fans have also forced a string of Mubarak era officials to resign or withdraw their candidacies for office. The Illegal Gains Authority moreover has banned the chairman of Al Ahly, Hassan Hamdi, from travel and frozen his assets on suspicion of corruption.
Al Ahly fans are likely to further take some satisfaction from a decision this week by the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to put on hold an earlier ruling that overturned an EFA banning of Al Masri for two seasons and its demotion to the second league because of the February brawl, the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history. The court’s freezing was in response to an EFA appeal against its earlier decision.
The EFA appeal followed severe criticism by fans who charged that CAS had overturned the sanctions because the EFA had failed to attend a key hearing in the case. Al Ahly fans will monitor the EFA’s next steps closely, which could influence their attitude toward the resumption of the soccer league.