Sundowns won't be facing an intimidating crowd this time in Cairo
The Brazilians take on Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the first leg of their CAF Champions League quarter-final at Cairo International Stadium on Saturday.
In the past, any team making the trip to Cairo, whether to take on Ahly or their rivals Zamalek, would do so with serious trepidation.
So tough a venue was the Cairo International Stadium that the great Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast described it as being similar to a war zone during the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations.
The iconic 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 while Al-Ahly and Zamalek have 12 CAF Champions League crowns between them.
When packed, 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 the opponents started on the back foot before a ball had even been kicked.
Sundowns though are not at such a disadvantage.
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 on Egyptian football since the Port Said riot that claimed the lives of 74 people - 72 Al-Ahly fans, one police and one Al-Masry fan.
It is alleged that the riot was fuelled by the police who wanted to hit back at Al-Ahly Ultras, Ultras Ahlaws, who played a key role in the overthrowing of former President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring that swept over North Africa.
The ban has been partially lifted a couple of times, especially for international games, but it still remains the government’s prerogative which matches supporters can attend and how many. Only 30 fans were allowed in for the Cairo Derby on July 30 last year, days after the country had hosted the Afcon with thousands of supporters in attendance.
The assault on the Ultras was started by Zamakek chairman and Mubarak backer, Martada Mansour. The Zamalek boss labelled Ultras as terrorists and launched a number of lawsuits against them due to his on-going battles with the group. He won one of those suits, and on 16 May 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.”