When football fans take up the cudgel of pro-democracy protest, they can be a powerful force. During Egypt's Arab Spring, rival football fans united into a single compelling movement applying their instincts to civil protest. And today they're on the run, the authorities out for revenge. With rare access this doc offers an unseen view of the Arab Spring and its fatal consequences for Egypt’s most passionate sports fans.
I’ve seen a lot of crazy things the last couple of years, and for me the significance of football changed drastically. It’s not just a game with 22 players and a ball. The pitch and the grandstands form an energetic communal ground for battles, friendships, and new cultural movements.
My name is Frederick Mansell, and I’m a documentary filmmaker. I grew up in an upper class neighbourhood in the Netherlands. I went to an upper class school, and to an upper class football club. But every Saturday my simplistic worldview collided. On the football pitch I met boys with different backgrounds, different frames of reference and different views on the world. Football matches were class struggles and I soon found out that our Dutch liberal society was segregated to the bone.
Many years later I met some of my former opponents in a dodgy bar. They smiled and offered me a drink. ‘You were playing for those cocks!’ I smiled and replied: ‘You damn pikeys!’ It was a great night with mutual respect, and I realized that I would have never met them without the game. Football cuts through all walks of life. This realization became crucial in my work as a filmmaker. Football gives us the unique opportunity to explain complex issues of modern-day society through a common denominator. Everywhere in the world…
Photo © Ahmed Abd El-Gwad
Cairo Egypt - April 09: Passion towards Zamalek SC is what leads the devoted group of young men to come together and organize behind their team for the first time in a football match in Cairo after 20 died when attacked at the Air Defense Stadium. (Ahmed Abd El-Gwad)
The first time I entered the Gaza Strip was special. I couldn’t deny that I was a bit nervous; the Jewish part of my family said Gaza was a dangerous place full of Hamas terrorists. My colleague and friend Laurens tried to comfort me, but at the border two Hamas guards stopped us with their Kalashnikovs. One guy looked quite serious and then asked: ‘Barcelona or Real Madrid?’ They laughed out loud and I happily joined them.
We made our first documentary film in the Gaza Strip, Team Gaza. It’s about four young men with different views on the world, who all play for the same Premier League club. A religious sheikh who preaches for peace, a barber who want to have a ‘normal’ life with a wife and kids, a rebellious teenager who wants to flee to Sweden, and a loving father who fights for the militant branch of Hamas. Because they all played in one football team, we had the opportunity to show a unique multicoloured view on life in Gaza. And even better: viewers had the opportunity to relate to those characters, because football and everything that comes with it, is universal.
ULTRAS OF EGYPT
In Gaza someone told us the incredible story of the Egyptian football hooligans. It became our next documentary film: Ultras of Egypt. ‘People say that football has nothing to do with politics, but in Egypt that’s not true.’ It’s a quote by an ultra-leader of football club Al Ahly from Cairo. The mixture of football and politics became visible in 2011, when protests erupted in the streets of Egypt.
At the Tahrir-square in the center of Cairo, there was one group that stood out: the ultras. These Ultras were formed to fanatically support local football clubs but became the fighting division of the civil protest against President Mubarak. The football hooligans put aside their rivalries to unite against an enemy that was larger than football: the military regime. The Ultras knew how to fight the much-hated police and how to resist them with force. Marching the streets, the Ultras became the heroes of the revolution using football stadium habits to lead the crowds: with chants, hand clapping, banners, and flares. But the ultras paid a high price when a new military regime took over. In Egypt the ultra-groups are now considered terrorist organizations because of their role during the Arab spring revolution. A lot of ultras were captured or killed, and football stadiums are empty. But in secrecy the ultra-groups still exist; they live between hope and fear. Hope for better times and fear for being captured.
For our film we met the ultra-leaders at secret places in the outskirts of Cairo. Bravely they told us their story.
Half a million people watched Ultras of Egypt and I sincerely hope that the film achieved something: changing the significance of football drastically. Because football is not just a game, it’s the cross section of society.