When Lebanon’s legendary pop-icon Sabah sang “I’m torn, by God” – to describe how she couldn’t choose between supporting Al-Ahly or Al-Zamalek, Egypt and Africa’s two biggest football teams – she nonetheless attempted to bridge the divide between the two sets of supporters, adding: “Both are sweet, both have taste.”
Never would she have expected, therefore, that a day would come when a man would lose his brother, and a wife her husband, over a question of football loyalties. For in the Arab world’s most populous country, there have in recent times been many a story where the kinship of flesh and blood has been rendered meaningless by nothing more than a sports rivalry.
When Lebanon’s legendary pop-icon Sabah sang “I’m torn, by God” – to describe how she couldn’t choose between supporting Al-Ahly or Al-Zamalek, she nonetheless attempted to bridge the divide between the two sets of supporters, adding: “Both are sweet, both have taste.”
Family battles under one roof
When the brother of Al-Ahly’s Saleh Gomaa, Abdullah, joined rivals Al-Zamalek in 2015, Saleh came out with a mischievous statement to Al-Ahly’s football channel: “My brother always avoids me after Zamalek defeats; before coming home after defeat, he asks first if I’m in the house or not, and then decides whether to return or spend the night with his friends.”
The depth of feeling brought on by the rivalry, of course, extends far beyond the players on the field. ‘Khaled’, a worker in a textiles factory, tells Raseef22: “Me and my brother were both raised in a football-loving home; unfortunately however, we each had our own affiliations. Most of the family are Ahlawi [supporters of Al-Ahly] other than a few who support Zamalek, including my younger brother.”
The rivalry between the two brothers was initially congenial, Khaled says, until he noticed that his brother was starting to take his football tribalism to another level: “About two years ago there was a match between Ahly and Zamalek, and as is usual in those meetings the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters was charged. Even though our family was never extreme in its footballing [partisanship], my brother broke that rule and became an overzealous fan.” he says.
“So that’s why when they lost the match and I started to have some somewhat ‘heavy banter’ with him, he got angry at me and started transgressing against me with insults.”
Khaled says that he tried to calm his brother – five years his junior – but to no avail: “I tried to explain to him that this is a game in which there is [always] a winner and a loser, but he kept taking it too far.”
Since that game Khaled says the relationship between the two brothers has been on hold: “He suddenly decided to cut ties with me, and it’s been two years with us in this state” he says. “To be honest, I don’t deny shortcomings from my end, and that I failed to contain him as his older brother, but still, my dignity isn’t allowing me to forget that he insulted me… may God guide him.”
Indeed, according to a 2015 report by Egypt’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, the extent of Egypt’s footballing rivalry has even permeated the confines of the matrimonial bedroom. On one occasion following another defeat by Zamalek in the derby, a couple got divorced after the wife’s taunts – which reportedly included describing the defeated team as “pumped-up skin” that took all of her spouse’s attentions – started to become unbearable to her Zamalek-supporting husband. Thankfully, the startled reaction reported in Egyptian society to the incident showed that such an event remains rare.
“I was genuinely going to divorce my wife because of Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek. As long as there is an Ahly game on everything in the world has to stop until the end of the match, even if the universe starts collapsing on top of itself.”
Nonetheless, Raseef22 was able to reach another near-divorcee, Abdul Rahman, a resident of the city of Tanta north of Cairo. Abdul Rahman didn’t seem fazed by our questions: “I was genuinely going to divorce my wife because of Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek,” he says. “As long as there is an Ahly game on everything in the world has to stop until the end of the match, even if the universe starts collapsing on top of itself.”
“Anyway” he paused, before continuing: “About five years ago, and on the day of the Ahly-Zamalek match, and right in the heat of the game, her brother rang the phone. He was saying that her mother was ill and that she had to go to her. And this one [his wife] has a head and a thousand swords [Egyptian expression signifying single-mindedness] that she has to go immediately, and of course I can’t let her go alone. So I told her that when the match finishes I’ll take you there, even though there are disputes between me and my mother-in-law.”
Abdul Rahman’s continued focus on the game following the phone call was justified, he says: “I also knew that her mother wasn’t ill to the degree that something would happen to her, but she insisted that she was going to go and drove me to get angry… and I’m easily-agitated by nature. Anyway, I swore that if she went before the end of the match I would divorce her, and she entered a fit of crying and screaming until the match ended. I went and drove her there, and when we arrived I discovered that I was right. The whole thing was a flu, not open-heart surgery.”
“Right here is enough”
If Egypt’s football rivalry can break down marriages, then perhaps it’s not a surprise that it could dissolve business partnerships too. ‘Sami’ agreed to pair-up with one of his university colleagues after they graduated from the Faculty of Commerce. According to Sami, the two sides had agreed all the minor business details, until the most important detail – who they supported – suddenly reared its head following Zamalek’s rare recent ascendance in the league over Al-Ahly.
“Both of us are die-hard fans,” Sami explains. “I support Zamalek and he Al-Ahly. We’ve been together since the first year of high-school, nothing could separate us and all the [causes of] upset between us was because of football.”
Things would take a dramatic turn during the current 2018-19 football season. “As a supporter of Zamalek,” Sami continues, “this year the chance arrived on a silver plate to get justice for all the mockery that we were subjected to over the past period – as Zamalek is first in the league and likely to win the title.” However, Zamalek’s successes in the league would prove fateful to the lifelong friends’ (and recent graduates) business aspirations.
“I didn’t know that he would be this upset and sensitive,” Sami explains. “I tried a few times to change his mind, [telling him] that we shouldn’t end the idea of being partners on the project that we dreamed of, but he felt that it was better to remain as friends than lose each other whilst partners in a moment of football fanaticism.”
Social media and cinema… the “war’s” new frontlines
As with much else, the emergence of social media has been weaponised as an additional tool in the rivalry. In an open ‘electronic war’ subject to no limits, accountability or red-lines, comic sketches and videos mocking the opposing team fill Egyptian social media platforms whenever the two teams meet on the field.
Indeed, the new electronic war represents a continuation of a more conventional one which has survived the turn of the century. The bloodiest manifestation of Egypt’s footballing conflict took place during the 1971-72 season, when violence broke out after a match between the two sides, claiming the lives of two supporters. The event took place only a few years after riots and clashes broke out during the 1965-66 season – repeated again in the modern era when an unprecedented scale of clashes broke out on the streets of Cairo in 2010 – this time, though, following a handball match between the two sides.
Egypt’s cinematic scene, too, has been inundated for years (indeed, decades) with references to the divide – with some claiming that Egyptian films have in fact helped stoke the unrelenting rivalry between the two sides.
A prime example was the 2005 production “Sayed the Romantic”, in which movie star Tamer Hosny embodies a new atmosphere of popular mockery of Zamalek (which would rise to new proportions following a 6-1 defeat in 2002 at the hands of Al-Ahly). In the film, Sayed’s mother is featured in the crowd leading taunting chants towards rival supporters, most notably: “they took six on the way there and four on the way back” (the latter a reference to another four-goal heavy defeat by Zamalek) and “Bebo and Besheer… Bebo and the goal!” – a reference to what would become a legendary quote by commentator Medhat Shalaby, after Al-Ahly’s Khaled Bebo netted his team’s fourth after skilfully dribbling past Zamalek defender Besheer El-Tabei during the (in)famous 6-1 victory.
Other films which have acquired an iconic status in their portrayal of the rivalry include “Keda Reda”, starring film star Ahmed Helmy, and “Al-Zamahlawya” (an amalgamation of the two names). The latter depicts two rival families comedically battling each other to the death, and features a host of Al-Ahly and Zamalek players including Essam Al-Hadary, Khaled Bebo, Gamal Hamza, Shady Mohammad, Amro Zaki, Mohammad Disouki, and Hossam Al-Badry.