A British journalist was riding a taxi in Egypt. He was in the country to see the Cairo derby, the biggest football match in Egypt and North Africa: Al Ahly play versus Zamalek. During the journey, his taxi driver told him “Don’t go.” The puzzled journalist asked “Why?” “They will kill you,” the driver said.
It would have been nice if the taxi driver was just joking. However, it is the reality when these two big Egyptian clubs meet. Lives get lost. Properties get destroyed. Players, fans and police alike get injured.
It’s the biggest football match in North Africa and probably the whole African continent, And it’s the most bitter football rivalry in the world. This is what Bill Shankly meant when he said football is more important than life and death.
So big is the rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek that if you’re a fan of either team, you’re not expected to have anything to do with the other football club or have any close friends who support the other club.
In the 1970s, these two biggest clubs forced the Egyptian football league to be cancelled due to issues of public security. On several occasions, the two clubs have had to play against each other in an empty stadium without their fans.
So big is the match that Egyptian referees cannot officiate it and foreign referees have to be flown in. Who wants to lose their life for officiating a football match?
So fierce is the rivalry that if an Egyptian man wants to marry a woman and the families of the man and the woman support the two different clubs, it is a big problem. The wedding would have to be cancelled.
If you find it hard to understand, then a former captain of Al Ahly has answers. Shady Mohamed, a former captain of the club said: “Supporting Al Ahly isn’t just like supporting a football club. It is like a religion.”
How easy is it to change your religion or marry someone from another religion?
Al Ahly and Zamalek: The History
In Arabic, the name Al Ahly means “the national”. In the early 20th century when Egypt was still a colony, Al Ahly emerged as the first football club run by Egyptians. The club used the red colour of Egypt’s pre-colonial flag and was seen as a symbol of the struggle for independence. Al Ahly had the support of the masses, the grassroots of Egyptian society who longed for liberation from the colonial master
On the other side were Zamalek, wearing white. The football club was considered the club of the colonialists and outsiders. It had the support of the British, the crème of Egyptian society who were in bed with the colonial master and the intellectuals who were not ready for a struggle towards independence.
Today, Ahly remains the club of the masses. Its average fan is more likely to be poor whereas Zamalek is sort of the club of the wealthy and upper middle class. The historic political, social and economic division between the two clubs and their supporters endures, ensuring that this football match will always be about more than just football.