Friday, May 28, 2010

One of the most apparent things I've learned traveling outside of the US is the importance of soccer (or football, as I will refer to it from here on). Football is the global sport and the rivalries that develop from it can serve as immediate conversation starters between travelers, even if they don't speak the same language. While I was in Brazil, I met several Brits whom didn't speak a single word of Portuguese, yet were able to clearly convey a wide range of emotions to the Brazilians living in the hostel. They would all drop names and different club teams and scoff, laugh, congratulate each other, and generally understand each other through the language of their shared sport. Following football really opens your eyes to the rest of the world, where players are international figures, and fans know something about almost every country, even if its just that they suck at football. I figure that's better than nothing.

So, after missing a big match in Sao Paulo between the two big club teams there (SC Corinthians and Flamengo), I jumped at the chance to see a game in Cairo. The game I went to was between the two best club teams in Egypt, the Arab World, and according to some Egyptians, all of Africa. Both clubs are based in Cairo, and were established over a hundred years ago. Zamalek, which is represented by white, and Al Ahly, which is red. Al Ahly is particularly dominant, with an incredible list of wins.

And these teams represent more than just two football clubs in Cairo. There seems to be far more politics associated with them, as Zamalek is heavily supported by the wealthier residents of Cairo (Zamalek being one of the wealthiest areas in the city), while the majority of Al Ahly fans are from the working class. Case in point, the person whom invited me to the match is the owner of the hotel I'm staying at; he is a huge supporter of Zamalek. Yet all of his employees are devoted fans of Al Ahly.

The match was at Cairo International Stadium, which is supposed to seat some 75,000 people, but has actually seated ~120,000 before, miraculously. What I was most surprised by was the clear separation between the fans. When you arrive at the stadium, you park with the supporters of your team. Since I was with Zamalek, we parked in the Zamalek area, and entered through the Zamalek entrance. Al Ahly fans had their own areas and entrance on the other side of the stadium.

The police were out in force, in full riot gear, and effectively keeping the two fan bases away from each other throughout. In the picture below, you can see the line of police, like a security detail, wrapping continuously around the stadium and the fans.

As for the match, Zamalek lost 3 - 1. After an early goal by Zamalek (literally within the first 30 seconds), Al Ahly completely outplayed them. The boss (the owner of the hotel and my gracious host) joked with me that he was going to have to come in the next day and immediately talk business to avoid all the flak he would get from his employees. But 3 days later, and the employees are still wearing red, making it hard for him to forget.

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