Nahlah AyedForeign Correspondent
For over a year, the sprawling Al-Ahly soccer club hasn't been its customary, brash self.
Based in Cairo, the club was the home to the 2011 Egypt Premier League winner and one of Africa's most accomplished teams. But instead of boasting images of its most celebrated players, the club's entrance is adorned with paintings and pictures of murdered fans.
No team has played a premier league match in this country since these people were killed in a post-game rampage a year ago.
Like much else in Egypt since the revolution, the nation's most beloved game has seen better days.
"This year, the Ahly club, and clubs in general, suffered a great deal because the playing stopped," says Mahmoud Allam, the prestigious institution's executive manager.
"The return of the league is one of the stages of the return of normal life to Egypt."
Understandable, then, the excitement when the Egyptian Football Association announced last week that the country's suspended premier league would kick off again, as scheduled, despite recent unrest — a day after the first anniversary of the worst case of soccer violence in Egypt's history.
That happened moments after Al-Ahly lost against Al-Masry club on the latter's home turf in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.
Local fans — along with some alleged thugs and police — overran the pitch and savagely attacked the visitors. When it was over, scores were injured, and more than 70 of Al-Ahly's die-hard fans — called Ultras — were dead.
These Ultras believe they were deliberately targeted because of their prominent role in taking on the Mubarak regime and its thugs during the early days of the revolution two years ago.
Given the bloody background, soccer officials said that bringing the league back took considerable negotiation involving a number of unexpected players: the football association, the minister of sport, the teams, the fan clubs, the mourning Ahly club and the victims' families all participated.The calming effect of soccer? A young protestor plays with a ball while his fellow demonstrators throw rocks at riot police outside the interior ministry last week in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
But given the recent instability, so did the interior ministry and the military.
The goal was to bring soccer back to the people as soon as possible, partly to try to pry youth away from the charged political atmosphere of the protests, but also to save the clubs from certain bankruptcy.
The pragmatic compromise: playing the games of the first half of the season at military soccer fields — with no spectators, only the TV cameras allowed.
"We chose military fields because the security is better, and they are far from the disorder, no one can break in — it's a military place," the Egyptian Football Association's Azmy Megahed told CBC News. "The defense minister didn't hesitate and he agreed."
It was the same defense minister who warned last week that after endless bickering between regime and opposition, and many days of non-stop clashes, the country was in serious danger of collapse.
Some of the worst of those clashes happened in Port Said, the scene of last year's massacre, after a court last week handed down 21 death sentences in the killing of those Ahly fans.
Port Said residents believe the sentences were political — to appease Al-Ahly and its Ultras, who had threatened chaos if they didn't get justice.
The Port Said reaction prompted already embattled President Mohammed Morsi to announce a curfew and states of emergency. But those decrees only prompted ridicule and nighttime soccer games to flout them.
Despite that reaction, and all the clashes of the last two weeks, this past weekend saw the quietest evenings since protests marking the second anniversary of the revolution began on January 25.Al-Ahly's 'Ultra' fans demonstrate last week after a Port Said court sentenced 21 people to be executed for the politically motivated riots that led to death of more than 70 Al-Ahly supporters a year ago. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Coincidentally, the first game of the league was held on Saturday at the "border guards" stadium, and Al-Ahly was playing.
Allam believes the quiet is no coincidence. "I think it's the result of the return of the league, people became occupied and began to feel that the normal life has started to come back," he said.
(Allam, who is Canadian-Egyptian, is so addicted to Egyptian soccer, he used to follow it all the way from Vancouver, where he lived for 12 years and where his children continue to live.)
Yet in a country mad about soccer, a Premier League game without spectators is not only unprecedented, but also akin to the worst forms of blasphemy — for purists, as bad or worse as the league's suspension.
"Soccer was created for the sake of the spectators, so let's not lie to each other and say that without spectators, it will work," says Adel Hamed, who says he was born to be an Al-Ahly fan.
"But it has to come gradually," he concedes, "not all at once."
Most of the fans interviewed for this piece reluctantly agreed. They also seemed to believe that the return of soccer would have some calming effect on Egypt's riled youth, even if it has to be watched on television, at home or in one of the hundreds of cafes that thrive on airing the games.
Isam Farouk Mahmoud, owner of Sport Café in the Mohandiseen neighbourhood of Cairo, said his place was teeming with fans on Saturday, watching the first game of the new season.
"People have had enough of politics," he said. "It's been two years of this mess, so we couldn't wait for something to entertain us a bit and keep us busy. The league helped us forget. It was like a stadium in here."
But not quite. The lone goal that secured Al-Ahly's first win might have been an exhilarating moment had it not been for the deafening silence in the stands.
Back at the Ahly club, Allam takes note. “Of course spectators are the soul of the stadium, and they are what gives inspiration to the players,” he says. “But something is better than nothing.”