Egypt Stadium Tragedy: Soccer's Power to Unite Was Hijacked in Port Said

Will Tidey@willtideySenior Manager, GlobalFebruary 3, 2012

Soccer really is the game of the people. Its rhythm beats in the hearts of the masses, and millions of lives are punctuated by the 90-minute bursts of escapism that in some cases define them.

The power this affords our sport is frightening. An estimated 700 million people watched the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. That's roughly one in every 10 people on the planet.

Such widespread infatuation makes soccer a political tool of near limitless potential. Communities, cities and entire continents can be pulled together by the success of their teams. Hosting a major tournament can resonate pride to a people who may never have felt it before.

When South Africa welcomed the 2010 World Cup, the rainbow nation embraced it like a new dawn. When the greatest show on earth lands in Brazil in 2014, a troubled country will seize the chance to plot a brighter future.

Political leaders have long appreciated the value of their soccer teams. A collection of athletes kicking a ball around can be an extension of national identity. Done well, it can even bolster a government's popularity.

Through soccer, the world has been changed many times for good. Happiness has been brought to millions, and societies glued together by a game so simple you can play it anywhere.

But the enduring popularity of the beautiful game can come at a devastating price. That price was paid fully with the tragic loss of a reported 79 lives in Port Said, Egypt, this week in an unspeakable stadium disaster that has left the soccer world in shock and mourning.

It's still too early to draw conclusions on precisely what sparked the violence between supporters of the home side al-Masry, the visiting Cairo team al-Ahly and security forces, and we may never know for certain. Theories abound, and political motivations may well be muddying the waters of truth.

Writing for Time magazine, James M. Dorsey has outlined the two preeminent theories—both identifying the group of al-Ahly fans known as "ultras," who he says were highly active in the campaign to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.

"The truth behind the incident may never be definitively established, and could well lie somewhere between assertions that the fans themselves instigated the violence, and allegations that they were deliberately provoked," Dorsey writes.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent, Wyre Davies, has also highlighted the link between the mostly "young, poor and unemployed" al-Ahly fans and the battles that left 800 dead in demonstrations leading up to Mubarak being overthrown.

But he calls the conspiracy theories a little "far-fetched":

All we know for sure is that poorly paid and poorly trained riot police failed to keep apart two sets of football fans with a history of violence and mutual hatred.

After the overthrow of President Mubarak, you might expect everyone to now come together, preparing for a new era. But the reality is that Egypt is still a country in turmoil.

Whatever the motivation for the atrocities in Port Said, we can say with absolute authority that soccer was no more than a vehicle. Not for the first time, its powers for good were hijacked by dark forces and its allegiances were betrayed with tragic consequences.

Egypt is no stranger to football-related violence, but this was the nation's worst sporting disaster. Tensions are threatening to boil over in an already volatile political climate.

A country with an intense passion for soccer has been left with its reputation in tatters. The Egyptian Premier League has now been suspended indefinitely and FIFA has requested a full report into the events in Port Said.

"Today is a black day for football and we must take steps to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens again," wrote FIFA president Sepp Blatter in a letter to the head of the Egyptian FA, Samir Zaher.

"Football is a force for good," Blatter continued, "and we must not allow it to be abused by those who mean evil. ... I await further news from you concerning the circumstances of this tragedy."

All we can hope is that Egypt somehow emerges from this tragedy better equipped to deal with the threat of stadium violence in the future. It won't come as consolation to the families who lost loved ones in Port Said, but perhaps the appalling events of Wednesday night can prove a turning point.

Soccer's power to unite and uplift is unrivaled in the world of the sport. But in times like this, the game we love seems wholly insignificant.


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