James Dorsey’s blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer looks at the intersection of soccer and politics.
Dorsey’s been scribbling furiously since the terrible violence in Port Said.
Marco Werman speaks with Dorsey about what’s behind the violence and perhaps the reaction or lack of it by Egyptian authorities.
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Marco Werman: The violence yesterday in Egypt involved rival groups of hardcore soccer fans known as Ultras. Supporters of the local Port Said team, Al-Masry, attacked the Ultra rooting for Cairo’s Al-Ahly. And police at the stadium reportedly stood by for the most part. That’s significant because the Cairo Ultras have a long history of clashing with police. They also played a key role in the protests against police and other security forces during Egypt’s revolution last year. James Dorsey writes about the intersection between soccer and politics. His blog is called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
James Dorsey: Soccer in Egypt as well as in the rest of the Middle East is from its inception political and has been political ever since. So, none of this violence is purely soccer related. Soccer in the Middle East is a battlefield, and that battle is often fought very bloody.
Werman: The Ultras have some political significance, partly because of the origins of their team, Al-Ahly, and partly because of the stand they took during Egypt’s revolution last year, pushing back against the forces of law and order in Tahrir Square. Is there a political backdrop to the Port Said team, Al-Masry?
Dorsey: Every team was politically founded. Those political origins really don’t mean much anymore. It means nothing, far likely to be anti-monarchists in a country where the monarchy no longer, hasn’t existed for 50 years. On top of that, in essence you have within every club three groups. You have the fans who by in large are anti-regime and clashed with the regime over a number of years prior to Mubarak’s departure. You have management, which was appointed by the regime. And you have the players who because the regime wanted to associate itself with soccer in a bid to shore up its own image, being able to distract attention and at times manipulate the motions, who became celebrities and they were showered with gifts, with attention by the regime. And so they stood on the sidelines during the revolt and that’s created tensions in the relations between the fans and the players.
Werman: So the Ultras, it’s a generic that doesn’t just apply to Al-Ahly.
Dorsey: That’s correct, Ultras first appeared in I think it was 1939 in Brazil, and then the next Ultra groups were in the 1950s in Italy. And there are differences between the groups, but fundamentally they are militant committed soccer fans who feel that they are the sole owners of the club and the only really true supporters. Management in many of the countries, as well as the players, are viewed as hired guns. When they get a better offer they move on. In Egypt, the management is not only a hired guy, but it’s an agent of the government.
Werman: And the Ultras who went to Tahrir Square to support the protestors last year, were they specifically Ultras in support of al-Ahly or various Ultras?
Dorsey: You have two major soccer groups in Cairo, Ahly is one, and it’s arch rival, Zamalek, which was the British club many, many years ago. And the Ultras for both of those groups were equally important and equally represented in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. They are Ultras and they perceive themselves as such. They are extreme, so that’s why they’re called Ultras. They are ultra in the way they support their party.
Werman: James Dorsey is a researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. His blog is The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, which we’ll link to on our site, theworld.org. James Dorsey, thanks a lot.
Dorsey: My pleasure, take care.
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