Soccer protests in Bizerte
By James M. Dorsey
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) hopes to raise at least $17 million in an auction this week of the premier league’s television broadcast rights for clubs financially strapped by two years of political strife that has seen soccer suspended for much of that period and fans banned from attending matches.
Egypt’s Satellite Broadcasting Commission headed by the chairman of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, Mamduh Abbas, has set EGP 120 million ($17.3 million) as the starting price of the auction that does not include radio broadcast rights and gives the winner the ability to parcel out segments of the league to different broadcasters.
The targeted price for television broadcast rights constitutes a multiple of the $2.6 million paid by Qatar’s state-run Al Jazeera network in late 2011. It was not immediately clear whether Al Jazeera would bid again for the rights that fit into its building of a significant sports franchise that includes the rights for 23 countries to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups as well as to France’s top league and the launch of a sports channel in the United States.
In a world in which top European clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have become global brands, Egypt boasts some of the Middle East and North Africa’s most popular teams, including Zamalek and its arch rival Al Ahli SC that is believed to have a fan base of 50 million.
Al Jazeera’s drawback in the short term is that Egyptian matches have until now also been broadcast on free-to-air channels in a country where cable television penetration remains low.
In a bid to give the winner of the auction confidence that he will not run afoul of the Egyptian Television and Radio Broadcasting Union, which controls all broadcast satellite uplinks, broadcast matches will display the union’s emblem.
A successful auction would give a badly needed financial boost to clubs that are financially troubled and have often been unable to pay players as a result of Egypt’s political volatility since mass protests first erupted in early 2011 that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
Al Ahli along with five other premier league clubs -- Haras El-Hodoud, Ittihad El-Shorta, Bani Swaif Telephones, Arab Contractors and El-Dakhleya – withdrew this month from the Egypt Cup because they could not raise sufficient sponsorship.
Soccer has been at the core of more than two years of protests with militant soccer fans playing a key role and the death of more than 70 Al Ahli fans in a politically loaded brawl in February of last year in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
The volatility remains as Egypt’s struggles to find a political balance and fans barred from both domestic and international matches after a year-long suspension of professional soccer in the wake of Port Said, the worst incident in Egyptian sports history, was lifted earlier this year.
The ban was earlier this month expanded from domestic to international matches as a result of several incidents including a display by Al Ahli fans during a match against Kenya’s Tusker FC in which they blamed Egypt’s former top military commander, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was the country’s de facto ruler at the time of the Port Said brawl, for the incident.
Angry Zamalek fans blocked the entry to the sports ministry earlier this week with a banner that read: "The stand is closed on the orders of the ministry and the ministry is closed on the orders of the stand."
Egyptian national team coach Bob Bradley cautioned that "a football match without spectators has no soul. Any footballer who has played in an empty stadium will confirm what an eerie, silent experience it is."
With soccer fan activism not limited to Egypt, Al Ahli meets this weekend in an African Champions League match Tunisia’s CA Bizerte, a club whose fans this week fought pitches battles with security forces this week after their team was disqualified from the domestic league as a result of alleged match-fixing. The fans attacked banks and shops and hurled rocks at police who fired tear gas in response.
Fan fury was sparked by a Tunisian Football Association decision to allow Club Africain rather than Bizerte to compete for the domestic title against Esperance Sportieve du Tunis, despite both teams coming second in their group with the same number of points. Club Africain and Esperance are Tunisia’s richest and two most popular teams.
The Tunisian club announced on Tuesday that it was withdrawing from the CAF Champions League in protest at Monday's decision in favor of Tunisia's two richest and most popular teams.
Bizerte initially said it would withdraw from the African tournament but then reversed its decision.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog