Egyptian football fans will finally breathe a sigh of relief on Saturday when they return to the stands for the first time since Port Said’s deadly riots as Zamalek host Berekum Chelsea in the African Champions League.
Up to 3,000 supporters will attend the match at Cairo’s Military Academy Stadium after the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) decided to gradually lift a crowd ban enforced since the February tragedy which left more than 70 dead and hundreds injured.
The efforts of Zamalek’s hardcore supporters (Ultras White Knights) to pressure the EFA into allowing them back to their safe haven bore fruit despite lingering security concerns in Egypt.
The interior ministry, which came in for fierce criticism after failing to prevent Masry supporters from confronting Ahly’s visiting contingent following an ill-tempered league game in Port Said on the first of February, has resolutely insisted it would not secure any match unless 10 safety requirements were met by the cash-strapped Egyptian clubs.
However, after consultations with new sports minister El-Amry Farouk, it softened its stance, giving the EFA the green light to hold domestic games in military-owned stadiums, most of which meet FIFA’s safety requirements.
“We rely on Zamalek fans to display sportsmanship and send a message to the world that Egypt is safe. That match will also pave the way for the resumption of domestic football ahead of the league’s launch on 17 September,” EFA spokesman Azmy Megahed said.
“Fans should be careful to prevent Zamalek from being sanctioned like Etoile Sahel. The fact that Zamalek are already out will count for nothing; for instance, they can be banned from playing in next season’s Champions League.”
Football-wise, the match against Chelsea is meaningless for the ailing Cairo giants, who lost any hopes of reaching the competition’s semis for the first time since 2005 after losing their first four games in Group B following some disastrous displays.
They will be eyeing consolation in their second game under manager Jorvan Vieira, whose debut saw Zamalek lose 2-1 at home to TP Mazembe of the DR Congo which led some board members to mull sacking the Brazilian and bringing back Hossam Hassan, who left the club last year.
Zamalek will have to do without several regular players, including veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan and Benin striker Razak Omotoyossi, who both threatened to leave the club in protest at unpaid salaries.
Ahly, Zamalek’s arch-rivals, are on top of the table with 10 points, three ahead of Mazembe and five clear of third-placed Chelsea. Zamalek are at the bottom with no points.
“A defeat is not an option. We came to Cairo with one thing in mind; to win this match,” Chelsea coach Johannes Van der Pluijm said in an interview with CAFonline.com.
“Any other outcome will diminish our semi final qualification hopes. We will enter the game on attacking mode from the first whistle and will only play for maximum points.”
Chelsea, inspired by in-form striker Emmanuel Clottey, defeated Zamalek 3-2 in Ghana in a thrilling affair last month.