The referee’s whistle blew. It was a shrill peep that was audible throughout the almost empty Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria. The Zamalek bench certainly heard it, given that they were wildly cheering within seconds of Al Ahly’s Ahmed Fathy – bandaged and one-eyed in his blood red jersey – bundling into Shikabala, Zamalek’s talisman and captain. Penalty. His teammate, Morsi, slotted the ball home to make it 2-0 in the 2016 Egyptian Cup final. The White Knights ran out 3-1 winners in the end, triumphing in the final match of a season that saw bitter rivals Al Ahly having the best of the league encounters, and the better trophy haul; which is fitting for a club that can also be referred to as Masters of the World.
This is no ordinary derby. It is a clash of the underdog against the powerhouse in a country where the terrain and classes are divided in the upper, middle, and lower. It mirrors the El Clasico fault lines found in Spain between Barcelona and Real Madrid, with everyone in Egypt supporting one of the two Cairo-based clubs, either directly or as a second team. You can easily tell what side of the divide an Egyptian man, woman or child is on come derby day, with bars and balconies decked out in competing colours of red and white. In addition, the two have dominated the Egyptian league for much of their history, with Al Ahly even going unbeaten in all competitions in 2005.
As unpredictable as the beautiful game can be, the origin stories of different clubs follow the same predictable route as any Marvel superhero genesis tale. In the case of Al Ahly, the side was midwifed into existence by their first president – an Englishman by the name of Mitchell Ince. Ince, who was working in the government, did for Ahly what other British expats did for clubs in Latin America and continental Europe. The inception of the team was inspired by wider political movements and the team’s moniker translates as ‘the national’, a fact borne out of attempts to resist colonisation in the early part of the 20th Century. This was a club run by Arabs, for Arabs.
Zamalek, founded by a lawyer, are the posher city neighbours. Tourists and expats flock to this part of Cairo, and the trendy vibe is complemented by the foreign embassies that flow through the district. It is a neighbourhood with an art deco style that cuts into the horizon, visible and proud. Under the patronage of the hated King Farouk, the team became known as the ‘foreigner team’. It was a side chiefly characterised by its hotchpotch XI of middle-class intellectuals.
Both sets of fans grumble about each other in the way that all football tribes do. Taxi drivers, kids, waiters, and the whole city will relay anecdotes about them. It’s not uncommon for the houses and cars of current – and even former – players to be at risk whenever the two sides meet.
Fans have long memories and even goalscorers from derbies gone by must take a little more care when moving around the city, while the heavy police presence at games before the 2011 revolution saw hostilities transferred to youth games. Running contrary to this persistent tension, the feeling is that the derby is also about escapism: Ahly fans want to forget their lack of economic means, if only for a little while.
The rivalry has been marked by perceived injustices and slights, a feeling that stretches back almost a century. In 1944, for example, Al Ahly were upset when the Egyptian FA (and Zamalek) president sanctioned them for sending more than a dozen players to Palestine, though in recent times anger toward the Zamalek hierarchy has come most often from Zamalek supporters. Nevertheless, the introduction of foreign referees has improved the situation on the pitch, with passionate fans putting any mistake made by the man in the middle down to incompetence rather than bias.
The atmosphere is febrile, with the passion burning with an intensity of a Sekhmet fire. Mariam, my Egyptian friend, is an avid football fan. ‘Every member of the family supports the same team,’ she explains, ‘and the passion is shared equally, though it’s the women that shout the most.’ She laughs as she tells me about falling off the bed when Al Ahly scored the opener in the 2007 derby. ‘If you’re a foreigner’, she continues, ‘you’ll still be welcomed into any home to watch the game… but you have to shout for their team’. She laughs again and pulls out her team’s scarf.
2011, however, was a turning point. Politics and football met, resulting in games behind closed doors and the derby, briefly, being taken out of the country. It was a moment that saw the ultras from both sides of the divide coming together as one. The revolution was a symbol of the public’s dissatisfaction with president Hosni Mubarak. Al Ahly’s Ahlawy and Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights helped fight the police and prolong the uprising in the opening weeks, and many ordinary Egyptians saw them as their protectors.
Retribution came a year later in Port Said. Numerous Al Ahly fans were murdered by fans of Al Masry. Help was sought from the police by fearful spectators in the stadium but none was given, while gates leading out of the ground were locked. A prosecutor’s report found evidence of collusion between security forces and the fans of Al Masry. Horror visited Zamalek also, as twenty of their fans were killed in a stampede at another game. Police had been firing tear gas into the crowd, but Zamalek did not seek justice for their supporters. Instead, they branded the ultras in general as ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’.
Some normalcy has returned. Zamalek lifted the 2016 Egyptian Cup on home soil, with fans shouting wildly in the stands and the players in red slumping off the field with their heads down and shoulders hunched. Bragging rights for generations had been won, and the city could escape across two halves of football once more.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead promises that ‘all things are possible…who you are is only limited by who you think you are’. As profound as this statement is, it overlooks one essential truth of football: that who you are is often defined by who you are not. Red or white? Upper or lower class? Every league would be poorer without its respective derbies, and Egyptian football would be diminished without the head-to-heads of Al Ahly and Zamalek.
Clear your diary for next instalment of the saga: December 29th. At the end of an often turbulent and unpredictable year, the legacy of a changing Egypt will endure, played out by the two best teams in the country, with decades of history and the associated contretemps squeezed into 90 minutes. In a city famed more for what its ancient dead have done, modern Cairo is alive and kicking when these two sides meet.