Port Said Stadium Disaster: What’s Behind Egyptian Soccer’s Bloodiest Day?

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Soccer fans flee from a fire at Port Said Stadium February 1, 2012.

Bill Shankly, the late legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club, is forever remembered for this dramatic claim: “Football isn’t about life and death. I can assure you it’s much more important than that.” Shankly didn’t quite mean it the way it came out, but the quote endured, a slogan that encapsulates the cosmic power of the world’s most popular sport and the unparalleled emotion that underlies it. But, as the bloody events in the Egyptian city of Port Said prove, the beautiful game is sadly often about death.

(PHOTOS: Many feared dead after soccer riot in Egypt.)

Some reports claim over 70 people died following rioting by fans of Cairo-based al-Ahly and home team al-Masry. Al-Ahly, Egypt’s (and possibly one of the world’s) most popular clubs, lost 3-1. Fans of both teams appeared to storm the pitch, overwhelming police and forcing players on both sides to flee in panic. “This is not football,” said al-Ahly’s veteran play-maker, Mohamed Aboutrika, over the phone to his team’s TV station. “This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances.”

It’s unclear how many fatalities occurred as a result of a stampede of frantic fans seeking escape — the most common cause, aside from stadium stand collapses, of casualties during soccer matches. Nor is it clear what exactly kicked off the violence. Al-Ahly is known for its passionate ultras, organized firms of hardcore supporters — some would say hooligans — who played a key role earlier last year in organizing and leading the defense of Tahrir Square against the security forces and loyalist thugs of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Even now, they maintain a deeply antagonistic relationship with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the interim military body that still runs Egypt.

Not surprisingly, the tragedy has already become politicized, with many pointing fingers at SCAF and the shoddy efforts of local security forces in dealing with the situation. Mohamed ElBaradei, an outspoken liberal political figure, tweeted: “It is a crime towards Egypt not to start immediate restructuring of the security apparatus.” Abigail Hauslohner, TIME’s Cairo correspondent, sent in this note:

The main factor here is the security forces’ general ineptitude (combined with a little animosity toward the ultras). The security situation in Egypt is in a terrible state. Egypt’s security forces were trained to crack down on dissenters and terrorists under Mubarak. They are ill-equipped and poorly trained to deal with actual security problems like crime and riots, and they also have little incentive to deal with them (low pay, no training, still upset that the country hates them, etc).

I’m skeptical of Egyptian tendencies toward conspiracy theories—particularly given football’s history of violence between passionate fans, Egypt’s current poor security environment, and the security forces general incompetence—but one could also argue that the unrest is in SCAF’s best interest. On the domestic level, SCAF wants to look needed. In its stand-off with the U.S., it also benefits from a deteriorating security situation. The U.S. will soon have to decide how it follows through on fiscal year 2012 aid for Egypt, upon which it has already imposed conditions for military aid. Egypt is failing to meet two of the three conditions, but the USG could also invoke an exception—allowing the aid to flow anyway if there are sufficient national security concerns.

This is, of course, conjecture. Even the reported death toll of “at least 73” has yet to be properly verified, she adds. More will emerge as Egypt wakes up Thursday in the aftermath of what is the country’s worst sporting disaster.

Outside al-Ahly’s Cairo headquarters Wednesday night, fans and mourners — including ultras who support the club’s hated rivals, Zamalek — gathered in a show of support and solidarity. According to the Guardian, some chanted “Down with military rule!” There wi’ll be time yet for recrimination and investigations. Bad feeling still lingers for many who support Shankly’s Liverpool following the terrible 1989 tragedy at Hillsborough, where mismanagement and overcrowding led to 96 deaths and a longstanding Liverpool fan campaign for “Justice for the 96.” The Egyptian soccer league has been suspended for the time being and the country’s new parliament is convening an emergency session Thursday. Justice may be high on the agenda, but likely far away.