By Ahmed Nada, @GizaGooner
Oh to be a Gooner… In Egypt
When most think of Egypt, they think of pyramids, occasionally a bit of sand, et al. Picture, instead, the following scene: a fan dressed in a full white kit, striped in red, joins a mass of white shirts in a march down a massive road; this is how Zamalek fans typically get to stadia. What is Zamalek, actually, what does it have to do with Arsenal, and why do they have to plan a quasi-protest to get to a game?
To start off, the basis for all discussions of Egyptian football and fandom is always going to be either Al Ahly, or : Cairo’s two biggest clubs, and by far and wide, the most successful clubs in Arabic history. Whenever you’re asked who you support, you aren’t asked for your local team – everyone supports their local team here, but holds a favourite among the two giants – you’re asked whether you’re ‘white or red’.
As with North London, Cairo is divided into red and white sections; the similarities don’t end here, as Al Ahly – the red side – are far more successful, the most successful club in the world, in fact. That doesn’t stop Al Zamalek fans from rubbing it in each time they gain a title, even if it’s only the Supercup. Starting from the baseline that everyone is either an Ahly or Zamalek fan, you see patterns between who they support locally, and their international preferences.
To understand where the hatred between the two stems, and why this leads to support toward certain clubs, you must understand the rift between them and its history. Briefly: Al Zamalek were the successful, monarch-endorsed side of the 10’s, 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s that won nearly everything in its path… Until Al Ahly got popular. Much like Real Madrid and Barcelona, they represent political fissures. The White Knights of Al Zamalek represent the rich, and well-off, while the Red Devils – yes, it’s common here, too – represent the middle class, and the poor.
Thus, you can see the pattern: Ahly fans prefer clubs like Barcelona, who stand for something populace-related, even vaguely; Zamalek fans prefer large, monarch-endorsed clubs, such as Real Madrid. The next question you’re asked, after whether you’re red or white, is whether you support Real Madrid or Barcelona. Barcelona, naturally, have the lion’s share: Al Ahly fans number in around 60-70 million, while Al Zamalek fans feature a ‘paltry’ 25-30 million.
So, how is it to be a Gooner in Egypt under these circumstances? Everyone in Egypt has a major club they support, that wins trophies every other minute, and whose trophy cabinets are overflowing, and overburdened; Arsenal, in comparison, seem weak, and ‘annoying to follow’. Most Egyptians – though not all, as evidenced by several Arsenal supporters groups here, or even Liverpool supporters groups – prefer to follow a team that wins very often, as it’s ‘easier’: you don’t have to get emotionally invested in it all.
I believe what encapsulates how being a Gooner is in Egypt the most is something a Madrid fan told me at the beginning of this year, just after we’d won the Community Shield again: “Good luck winning anything else, because Arsenal never win anything.” No retort I could’ve made would’ve changed how many Egyptians – or Arabs in general – see Arsenal: a club who’s had a trophy drought for longer than most other fans can remember.
It’s not uncommon to find a stranded Arsenal shirt in the midst of a sea of Ronaldo 7s, and Messi 10s, it’s actually fairly commonplace. Even with United’s successes, and Chelsea’s recent success in catching up on Aston Villa’s trophy cabinet, they aren’t even remotely the majority in Egypt anymore. Chelsea gained, and subsequently lost most of their fans through Mohamed Salah, but he’s another story entirely.
Arsenal would be the best of the rest in Egypt. Below the stature of that of Barcelona, Real Madrid, or the rarely-supported Bayern, yet above the stature of all of the others; Arsenal must come fourth in many aspects, I suppose, it’s destiny. Jokes aside, Egyptians watch football to be entertained, and were bored very quickly by José’s Chelsea, or Sir Alex’s United; as opposed to the high-flying Arsenal.
In 2006, for the Champions League final that Arsenal so narrowly lost, there were more red shirts than striped ones: people don’t necessarily need to be Arsenal fans here to support Arsenal. We have a saying that rounds this off very nicely, and it’s a saying all Arabic commentators reiterate whenever Arsenal score another beauty: “Support whomever you like, but enjoy Arsenal.”
Thank you to Ahmed, @GizaGooner, for participating in the “Oh to be a Gooner – International Roll Call” blog series. Would you like to earn your place on our map? Contact @coygoonersgirl or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.