CAIRO -- It was the kind of game that used to lock Egyptians in 90 minutes of suspense. Cairos Zamalek team was up against Suezs PetroJet. Zamaleks Ahmed Gaafar scored the last of three goals in that shutout game, after the ball bounced off PetroJets goalie. Gaafar kissed the ground as the television announcer roared a loud Goal!
The stadium, however, was silent. There were no fans to see the game.
Ever since 74 fans died last year in a stampede after a match between rivals al Ahly of Cairo and Port Saids al Masry, the government has prohibited fans from attending the games. Concerned that Egypts badly demoralized and fractured police were unable to secure the games, matches now take place in stadiums secured and owned by the countrys military.
The change is one of the many new forms of normal emerging here and shows how the inability of the government to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens has affected life here.
Just as women can no longer safely attend demonstrations in Cairos Tahrir Square for fear of sexual assault, soccer fans can no longer attend their beloved games for fear of organized mayhem. Instead, they must watch the matches on TV, staring from the sidewalk at a set in a cafe or, for wealthier Egyptians, alone or with friends in their living rooms.
Last month, a judge in Port Said sentenced 19 al Masry fans to death for their role in last years stampede, a verdict that set off violent protests that have killed at least 55 and continue to this day; five more people died in violence this week in Port Said.
And police are bracing for another round of demonstrations on Saturday, when the court is scheduled to issue verdicts against 54 other defendants in the stampede, this time including police officers and al Masry club officials accused of negligence in the case. Al Ahly fans already have attacked the Ministry of Interior in Cairo in what many believe was a warning of what they will do if the verdicts are too easy on the defendants.
In the meantime, the game already has changed.
Before the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, soccer dominated debate in a nation where the political landscape seemed static and fears of arrest were real for those who those who spoke out against the government.
Fans were so animated about games that one could follow a match from afar just by listening for the noise of the crowd. A roar would erupt with every goal; a groan for every missed opportunity. Afterward, fans would take to the streets.
These days, soccer has been pushed out as a national priority by the daily barrage of protests, economic turmoil and persistent instability. In the absence of fans, the games, broadcast on national television with the empty seats in the background, look more like scrimmages or intense practices.
People are less interested in soccer by 50 percent because, for example, al Ahly is having a match while there is a protest going on in Port Said, said\ Atef Shady, 29, who works for al Watan newspaper and has been a sports reporter since 2005.
Soccer entered political discourse during the 2011 uprising. Organized fans, known as ultras here, galvanized their soccer clubs supporters to flock to Tahrir Square by the thousands, contributing to Mubaraks fall. In one infamous incident, soccer fans stormed and sacked the Israeli Embassy shortly after the countrys military assumed power. A soccer clubs supporters can singlehandedly change the tenor of a protest, taking it from moribund to impossible to ignore. When al Ahly supporters urged the prosecutor to charge al Masry fans, administrators and police in the stampede, soccer went from a distraction to the impetus behind major protests.