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The Secret Policeman’s Football - Al Ahly v Zamalek

Fans will be avidly debating the fate of their nations in the World Cup, but football has the most support at domestic level. David Goldblatt explores the madness of the game at the Cairo derby.

With the 2010 World Cup underway, many football fans around the world will be avidly debating and agonising over the fate of their nations in the tournament. However it is often at the domestic club level that the game finds its most passionate support.

David Goldblatt, embarks on an assortment of adventures into the meaning and madness of the game. He travels to four very different football games in Italy, Egypt, Ghana and the UK, to experience the build-up and pitch action from the perspective of the fans.

It's 12 December 2009, the day of the Cairo derby. Billed as a violent clash of the two oldest clubs in Egypt, I arrive to find the fixture overshadowed by the national hysteria of Egypt’s failure to qualify for the World Cup at the hands or feet of hated rivals Algeria.

It’s a clue to what football means to many millions across the nation. It's one of the few legitimate areas of expression and emotion - in a heavily policed society where frustrations are many and outlets few.

Traditionally Zamalek have been tied to the Egypt of the past, to royalty and the world before the coming of Gamal Abdul Nasser. Al Ahly are literally "the nation" - seemingly the expression of national will. Set up deliberately in opposition to British rule and as a place to gather like-minded individuals against foreign rule.

When Nasser came to power he chose Al Ahly as the club to be run by one of his close military allies, although Nasser himself seemingly had little enthusiasm for football. Both clubs are the elite of North African football, shrouded in domestic and African honours - whilst the Egyptian league remains financially stable and able to retain its best players.

Zamalek, the White Knights, have been on the slide recently - bad management, bad results and bad vibes. Its fans see Al Ahly as the oppressive power - helped by officials and by interested parties to maintain their grip on the league. They speak of only ever feeling free at the club, like Al Ahly a vast sporting organisation that offers membership to those who can afford it and a range of sporting and social facilities.

Al Ahly, meanwhile, have been at the heart of a new phenomenon, the rise of the Ultras. Slavishly modelled along the lines of Italian Tifosi, elaborately choreographed displays of support with massive banners, structured leadership and highly orchestrated support. But to be an Ultra in Egypt is very different from Italian society.

Ultras traditionally hate the police but that is a dangerous thing to do in a virtual police state. They must organise secretly at night, arriving at the ground hours before anyone else to bring in their banners and paraphernalia. In the days and hours leading up to the game, leaders of both Al Ahly and Zamalek Ultras have been detained by the police but their plans go ahead.

Al Ahly's Ultras may despise their Zamalek cousins but reserve true hatred for the fans of nearby Ismaily. At their most recent away fixture, the Ultras stunned police with a blazing display of flares that shrouded the entire game in smoke.

Now, as the hours tick away, the police are taking no chances. Both the recent loss to Algeria and the orchestrated flares of the Al Ahly Ultras at Ismaily mean the national stadium - the only place big enough and safe enough to host the derby - is surrounded by the police and army.

Fans are thoroughly searched, any flag has its stick removed and all the while, plain-clothed security forces, in comfortable slacks and knitwear, watch attentively. Which is why my producer and I, perhaps naively brandishing BBC marked microphones are experiencing the ignominy of not being allowed in.

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25 minutes


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