Football gives us as fans some unforgettable moments that are talking points between friends for decades to come. Sadly, not all of these moments are unforgettable in a positive light. The Port Said Stadium riot, following an Egyptian Premier League match between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly, was one of these dark moments in football history.
It was the 1st of February 2012. A date that cannot be forgotten by Egyptian fans of the beautiful game – their domestic league would be shut down for 2 YEARS following the events of this fateful day.
74 people in total lost their lives, with 500+ severely injured as Al-Masry fans stormed the pitch at the end of their 3-1 victory to brutally attack players, team staff and fans of Al-Ahly.
Video and eyewitness reports described Al-Ahly fans stabbed with knives, machetes and broken bottles, as well as being beaten to death with clubs and rocks. There were also numerous reports of fireworks being fired into the crowds of Al-Ahly fans, who were desperately trying to escape the nonsensical violence on this awful evening.
Fans also died being thrown from or falling from stands, as well as asphyxiated/crushed in a crowd rush as they desperately tried to escape through locked gates.
How did this tragedy occur?
There were early signs that things could turn ugly during this match-up, as kick-off was postponed for 30 minutes due to Al-Masry fans having invaded the pitch.
This was a theme that they repeated at halftime, as well as after each of their team’s 3 second-half goals. At no point during these pitch invasions did the referee, nor any senior organisers within the Egyptian Premier League, deem it worthy to call off the game.
The match, despite these frequent pitch-invasions, went ahead and at the full-time whistle was 3-1 in Al-Masry’s favour.
NOT something that one would consider to be worth attacking opposition fans over. But, this appalling display of violence may not have been solely down to the football alone…
There were several highly concerning reports that emerged in the aftermath of this tragedy, stating that not only did Police and security teams ALLOW Al-Masry fans to storm the pitch at will, but HUNDREDS of fans were also allowed to enter the stadium armed with weapons without proper searches taking place.
On top of this, the away end’s exit gate was locked shut as the violence ensued, AND stadium lighting mysteriously shut off just after the game ended and the massacre began.
Video footage clearly shows the Police’s lack of willingness to attempt to contain the violence, or to protect those innocent fans that were being murdered in front of them.
Instead, they stood idly by as desperate throngs of Ahly fans were crushed against the locked stadium gates, or brought down by their attackers.
A rudimentary English translation of an Al-Ahry fan, as reported by Roar, said the following:
“Many aspects of the violence are worth questioning. Why would Al Masry fans attack Ahly supporters after their team wins 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? So many factors don’t add up.”
In fact, when taking into account the turbulent political landscape in Egypt at the time, the idea that this particular tragedy was the result of football hooliganism alone starts to appear less likely. It is worth remembering that these events unfolded at the same time as “The Arab Spring” – a series of anti-government uprisings and rebellions in the early 2010’s.
Many fans and spectators of the violence that night at Port Said believed the attacks to be prearranged and with underlying motive.
A political involvement?
To this point – it has been reported that the Al-Ahly fans had previously teamed up with Ultras from their most bitter rivals, Zamalek, to overthrow Egypt’s brutal security forces at the height of the revolution.
This leads many to question whether the security in attendance that night were in fact factions of this same force. It would certainly explain their unwillingness to aid the Ahly supporters as they were savagely attacked.
It is also considered by many to be more than mere coincidence that this awful attack occurred very close to the anniversary of the “Battle of the Camels”, which took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February the 2nd, 2011.
This “battle” was named after the large groups of Pro-Mubarak men who rode into Tahrir Square on Camel and Horseback to attack anti-government protestors who were demonstrating there.
Many of these mounted attackers bared sticks and bats as weapons.
The attacks took the lives of 11 people, injured over 600 and brought about the end of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDC). This was a result of the public seeing the movement’s true colours during the attacks in Tahrir Square.
The Port Said Stadium riot happened just the day before the first anniversary of this awful event, leading many to believe that the two attacks were linked.
It is hard to ignore the almost obvious influence of Egypt’s political situation at the time, especially considering the other strange factors that point towards the attacks at Port Said Stadium that night being prearranged.
Al-Ahly player, Mohamed Aboutrika, said after the match: “ 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”
Egyptian journalist, Dima Khatib was reported as saying: “We don’t know who caused the violence in Post 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”
The aftermath of Port Said…
The violence at Port Said on this dark evening in football’s history would create a chain reaction of riots across Egypt.
Civil unrest and severe clashes between protestors and security forces would erupt in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.
Groups of anti-government protestors believed that the violence at Port Said was the work of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and remaining factions of the Old Regime who were still in positions of power.
This was taken as an act of counter-revolution and sparked the violent response from protestors against the oppressive Security Forces.
The Egyptian streets would resemble a war zone, as Police bombed protestors with tear gas and intense violence ensued. This widespread chaos would continue for 12 days in total, finally being quelled on the 13th February 2012.
The Egyptian PL 2011/2012 is scrapped…
The events at Port Said will long be remembered as one of the darkest periods of Egypt’s and football’s history. The Egyptian Deputy Health Minister at the time described it as “the biggest disaster in the country’s football history.
Following the events that day, a scheduled match between Zamalek and Ismaily was cancelled. Subsequent matches in the Egyptian Premier League would also be postponed following the tragedy.
The cancellation of the remainder of the season was announced on the 10th March 2012.
This would be the 5th time that Egypt’s domestic league has been cancelled. Their 1954/55, 1970/71, 1973/74 and 1989/90 competitions were also axed, some also due to fan violence that resulted in deaths.
Despite the season being scrapped, a friendly tournament was devised to raise money for the families of the victims at Port Said.
18 teams would participate and play in empty stadiums. The Cup became known as the “Martyrs Cup” and was held between the 29th March and the 18th May 2012.
The case goes to court…
73 defendants, including 9 police officers and two officials from Al-Masry were charged with the killing of 72 Ahly FC fans.
Port Said criminal court would condemn 21 defendants to the death sentence on the 26th January 2013. A verdict against the other 52 defendants was postponed until the 9th of March that same year.
Ahly ultras would demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Interior Headquarters to assert their demands that the involved police officers be convicted. As of the 26th January 2013, none had been held accountable.
The court confirmed the 21 death sentences on the 9th of March 2013.
Of the remaining 52 defendants, 5 would receive life sentences, 10 received 15-year sentences, 6 received 10-year sentences, 2 with 5-year sentences, and a final defendant received a 1-year sentence.
Two Police officers were among those 10 defendants who received 15-year sentences for their part that day at Port Said stadium.
Both the defendants and the prosecution appealed the verdicts. Egypt’s Court of Cassation ordered the retrial of 64 defendants on the 6th February 2014, but rejected the appeals of 9 defendants, who were sentenced between 1-10 years in prison.
On the 19th of April 2015, 11 defendants were issued preliminary death sentences at the retrial. They postponed the verdicts of the remaining 53 defendants until June of that year.
On 9th June 2015, the court confirmed the 11 death sentences issued in April. They also acquitted 21 defendants.
Out of the remaining 32 defendants in the retrial, 10 received 15-year sentences, 9 received 10-year sentences, and 13 received 5-year sentences.
The two Police officers prosecuted in the original trial would see their sentences reduced from 15 years to just 5 years.
Violence continues in Egyptian Football…
Sadly, the deaths at Port Said in 2012 were not the first, nor the last, to emerge from the league.
In February 2015, another riot erupted before a matchup between Zamalek and ENPPI. The violence took place outside Air Defence Stadium, east of Cairo.
The attacks, just 3 years on from Port Said, claimed the lives of a further 22 fans that day.
A ban on fans travelling to domestic games had been lifted prior to this match, only to be reinstated following the 22 deaths that day.
It‘s a sad fact that clashes between paramilitary security forces and football fans in Egyptian football is a trend that isn’t going away any time soon.
With a culture of violence bred out of political turmoil, and football stadiums seemingly an ideal place to practice it – one has to wonder whether peace could ever be maintained.
Our thoughts are with the 96 whose lives were taken by these terrible events, along with their families and the THOUSANDS who needlessly died in the Arab Spring revolutions.