What happened in Port Said was not a football riot

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Egyptian fans rush into the field following Al-Ahly club soccer match against Al-Masry club. AP Photo

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The shocking scenes of violence at Port Said Stadium in Egypt this week were a dreadful reminder of the dark side of the beautiful game, but they must be analysed in context.

Waking up to the world news yesterday was like travelling back to a time when names such as Heysel and Hillsborough sent shivers down the spine of every self-respecting football fan.

The phrase “soccer riot” was everywhere. Perhaps it provoked knowing nods from those who associate the round-ball game only with sporadic acts of random violence.

Except, this violence doesn’t appear to have been random.

I’m a neophyte when it comes to north African politics, but I’ve been around long enough to know football fans are a convenient target when it comes to staging violence.

And there are so many aspects of the Port Said tragedy – where at least 74 people lost their lives and many more were wounded – which don’t add up.

Don’t just take it from me.

Here’s a rudimentary English-language translation from an Al Ahly fan who was at the game.

Many aspects of the violence are worth questioning.

Why would El-Masry fans (from Port Said) attack Ahly supporters after watching their team win 3-1?

Why did security forces armed with batons and shields allow unarmed people to stream down from the stands and run onto the pitch?

Why were the lights switched off at the height of the violence? (it was actually about three minutes after full-time, not “the moment the referee whistled”).

So many factors don’t add up.

And that’s because viewing the tragedy purely through the prism of ‘football riots’ ignores the political vacuum left by the ousting of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

It also ignores the fact Egypt’s ‘Ultras’ proved pivotal in bringing about revolutionary change.

It’s a point well made by Egyptian writer Mohamed El Dahshan, who highlights the fact Ahly supporters teamed up with the Ultras from their most bitter rivals Zamalek to harass Egypt’s brutal security forces at the height of the revolution.

Were these the same security forces who stood idly by as Ahly fans were attacked inside the locked corridors of Port Said Stadium? Perhaps.

“This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances,” said Ahly playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika after the match – a player I watched at the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.

The failure of the security forces inside Port Said Stadium to react to the mayhem around them is deeply suspicious.

Rumours abound that the violence was pre-arranged, not least because it came so close to the anniversary of the bloody “Battle of the Camels” in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

On that occasion groups of men rode into the square on horseback, whipping anti-Mubarak protestors – many of whom were known to be Egyptian football fans.

Egyptian journalist Dima Khatib is in no doubt the events are linked.

We don’t know who caused the violence in Port Said and it’s probably safe to assume some of those involved took part as opportunistic football fans.

But it is far too simplistic to call what happened in Port Said a “football riot.”

It was a riot, certainly, but one which has its roots in the fractured political scene of a country in upheaval.

Even as the dead are buried and the mourning begins – numbering not just football fans but also security forces – the political point-scoring and finger-pointing has begun.

And maybe it’s trite to say there are no winners, only losers when 74 people fail to exit a football stadium with their lives.

But as we remember them, it’s also worth remembering thousands more have lost their lives during the ‘Arab Spring.’

We should count the victims of the Port Said tragedy among them.

Mike Tuckerman is a Sydney-born journalist and lifelong football fan. After lengthy stints watching the beautiful game in Germany and Japan, he has settled in Brisbane and has been a Roar columnist since December 2008. Follow Mike on twitter @Mike_Tuckerman
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