Cairo International Stadium: A crumbling fortress
The venue used to be the slaughterhouse that was the bedrock of Egyptian football dominance. Many came starry-eyed and with the belief that they would get the better of Egypt, Al-Ahly and Zamalek who called it home - but very few came out alive, which is why the Pharaohs have seven Afcon titles and Al-Ahly and Zamalek have 12 CAF Champions League crowns among them.
When packed to either the original 120 000 or the 75 000 it was reduced to for the 2006 Afcon, few places on earth were as intimidating as Cairo International.
The flares, passionate crowd and even the lasers meant that opponents started on the back foot before a ball had even been kicked. Luckily for Sundowns, that’s not the atmosphere they will experience on Saturday when they take on Al-Ahly at 6pm in the first leg of their Champions League tie.
The second leg will be played in Pretoria the following weekend.
The government has agreed to allow 30 000 supporters into the arena, less than half of what the stadium holds. The restriction is due to the spectator ban that has been imposed in Egyptian football since the Port Said riot that claimed the lives of 74 people - 72 Al-Ahly fans, one police officer and one Al-Masry fan.
It is alleged the riot was fuelled by police who wanted to hit back at Al-Ahly Ultras, Ultras Ahlawy, who played a role in the overthrowing of former President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring.
The ban has been partially lifted a couple of times, especially for international games. Only 30 fans were allowed in the Cairo derby on July 30, days after the country hosted the Afcon last year with thousands of supporters in attendance.
It’s a depressing situation that has seen the pride of Egyptian football, its supporters, decimated in an act to squash any chances of another uprising. The Ultras have been the most targeted group.
The assault on the Ultras was started by Zamalek chairman and Mubarak backer, Mortada Mansour. The Zamalek boss labelled Ultras as terrorists and launched a number of lawsuits against them due to his battles with the group. He won one of those, and on May 16, 2015, Cairo’s Court of Urgent Matters ordered the dismantling of the Ultras.
Sundowns won the Champions League in Egypt the following year. No Egyptian team has won the continent’s biggest club competition since then. Zamalek lost in the final in 2016 and Al-Ahly lost in the final in 2017 and 2018.
“If the Ultras are terrorists, then what are those who place bombs? The Ultras are not about politics, they are about football. They have clashed with the police in the past, because the regime always fought them and abused them,” Ahmed Said, a Zamalek fan told Middle East Eye after the judgement that banned Ultras. “Everyone who has raised his head against the regime is now called a terrorist. According to the government, we are surrounded by terrorists.”