Crowd trouble and flares erupt in the stands in Port Said

CAIRO: Three days of mourning were declared  after 74 football fans died with many hundreds injured after crowd rioting at the end of an Egyptian premier league game in Port Said between Al Masry and champions Al Ahly writes KEIR RADNEDGE.

Thousands of fans  swarmed across the pitch moment after the final whistle of a game won 3-1 by Al Masry. Security police were among the dead in the 25,000-capacity stadium as the country’s fragile peace collapsed – or was deliberately underlined – in what was supposed to have been a sporting context. This was the worst disaster in Egypt’s sports history.

Samir Zaher, president of the Egyptian Football Association, announced that the league had been postponed indefinitely. The resumption of matches had been controversial in any case considering the febrile situation in the country amid rising popular impatience at the slow nature of political change after the overthrow of President Mubarak last spring.

Unconfirmed reports said that the government had sacked security chiefs in the city within hours of the disaster and that air force planes and/or helicopters had been despatched from Cairo to bring back the bodies of the dead and the injured. The Muslim Brotherhood, largest parliamentary group after the recent elections, accused renegade members of the security forces of collusion in fomenting the violence. An emergency session of parliament was summoned to consider the disaster and the fall-out.

Ironically the match would almost certainly not have taken place then and there had the Egyptian national football team qualified for the African Nations Cup currently under way in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

The worst crowd disaster in Africa was in Accra, Ghana, on May 9, 2001 when 127 people died after a match between Ghana’s two most successful football teams which saw Accra’s Hearts of Oak Sporting Club beat visiting Asante Kotoko 2-1. Angry Kotoko fans threw plastic seats and bottles onto the pitch and police fired tear gas in response provoking panic and a fatal stampede. Six police officers were later charged with 127 counts of manslaughter.

In Egypt sports and police authorities had been concerned about trouble even before the game in Port Said after crowd trouble marred the clubs’ meeting in the coastal city last season. Adding to the tension had been the recent appointment as coach by Al Masry of Hossam Hassan who had been  involved in a touchline clash with Al-Ahly coach Manuel Jose last season when he was in charge of Zamalek.

Both Hossam Hassan and Al Ahly director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz had appealed for calm before the game.

Ahly, who are chasing an eighth consecutive league triumph, started the game  second in the table with 36 points, one behind surprise leaders Harras El-Hodoud. They held a four-point lead over Cairo rivals  Zamalek, who have not won the league since 2004. The two clubs had been due to meet this coming weekend.

Ahly’s players flooded the club’s in-house television channel with phone calls to speak about the post-match horror and call on authorities to intervene and protect them.

“The security forces left us, they did not protect us. One fan has just died in the dressing room in front of me,” veteran playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika screamed in a phone call with the club’s channel.

“People have died, we are seeing corpses now. There are no security forces or army personnel to protect us,” attacking midfielder Mohamed Barakat added. “It is our fault because we played that match. The authorities are afraid to cancel the league because they just care about money, they do not care about the lives of people.”

Masry fans stormed the pitch immediately after the final whistle, chasing Ahly players and technical staff members, who “ran for their lives,” according to a report from Al-Ahram.

They subsequently clashed with Al-Ahly’s visiting supporters as the melee escalated and with minimal resistance from the undermanned and apparently incompetent security forces in the stadium.

“There are 11 deaths at my hospital. Two other hospitals have 25 deaths. Three fans have also died in the stadium,” said Medhat El-Esnawy, the manager of Port Said’s El-Amiry hospital, in a television interview.  “Some died in the stampede and others died of suffocation.”

Later in the day, Zamalek’s league game against Ismaili in Cairo was called off following the end of the first half upon the request of both teams after the outer part of one of Cairo stadium’s four stands was set light.

Zamalek coach Hassan Shehata said: “We are in a catastrophe. We had to show solidarity with the fans of Ahly and Masry.”

Alexandria-based clubs Ittihad and Smouha announced their withdrawal from the league competition.