egyptians are mad for soccer. a friend of mine claims the egyptian passion for the sport is rivaled only in england and brazil. i remember coming up out of the metro station near my house one night to be greeted by the sight of a crowd of men gathered outside the cell phone store, standing stock still, staring at the shop window. there are always a few stragglers there ogling the newest nokia or samsung model, but that night the crowd was particularly thick and intensely focused. it wasn't until i looked up that i realized their gazes were focused not on phones, but on two tv sets broadcasting the game of the day. you can tell it's a game day when the droves of men gathered at the sidewalk cafes are especially dense and the energy in the air particularly intense. a couple times last month i found my study sessions punctuated by random, spontaneous cheers rising from the streets outside my balcony window. it seems egyptian soccer fandom is a community thing.
this proved to be particularly the case last month, when egypt and algeria went head to head in the african world cup qualifying rounds. i, of course, had no idea what was going on until egyptian flags started springing up everywhere - flying from balconies, shop windows and car antennae. it seems there is a longstanding rivalry between the two countries that has at times turned a bit ugly. they played one match here, (which thankfully, egypt won), and the city went mad. spontaneous street parades erupted all over town and the honking and flag waving went on into the wee hours. it was a loud night even by cairo standards. one of my professors lives across the street from the algerian embassy in zamalek, and he reported the next day in class that he had to close his balcony doors to keep the fireworks out of his living room.
it's difficult not to get caught up in that kind of enthusiasm, especially in an newly adopted home (which also explains how this new yorker became a red sox fan...). so, meghan and i and our friend shams headed to a bar downtown to watch the next game. on my walk to meet them i passed impromptu theaters set up in a couple of electronics stores, their windows filled with rows of tv's tuned to the game. crowds of men decked out in red, white and black had arrived early with chairs and were filling the sidewalks as the game was set to begin. the bar had its own theater seating arrangement - all prime spots claimed by egyptian men who probably arrived hours early, with the periphery filled in by a mixed crowd of tourists and expats (the only place i saw any women). i'd come straight from class, which ended early, and with a warning to students to stay off the streets. i thought that was a tad alarmist, and indeed found the crowd in the streets and in the bar to be, on the whole, cheerfully enthusiastic.
alas, the egyptian world cup dream wasn't to be, as we lost that night, 1-0. as the crowd filed out of the bar the mood was more despondent than enraged, though in the days to come things did get a bit out of hand. riots broke out outside the algerian embassy, and reports of stones thrown at the algerian team bus and the mistreatment of egyptian fans in khartoum (where the final match was played) led to somewhat of a breakdown of diplomatic relations between egypt and algeria. i got a facebook invitation a few days later calling for algeria's suspension from fifa, and accusations were hurled back and forth regarding each country's inability to control its fans. seems this is a rivalry bound to continue. personally, i'm all for friendly rivalry - i love to hate the yankees as much as the next red sox fan. but when matters escalate to the point where diplomats and presidents start getting involved, it seems to me things might be getting a bit out of hand...