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How Soccer Changes the World

Football fans are infusing the political unrest in Egypt with grass-roots power

Last week's mass uprisings in Egypt threatened to topple the 30-year reign of president Hosni Mubarak, but the protests themselves didn't form behind a single unifying leader. In fact, as a few close observers noted, some of the most effective organizers may have come from the sports world. "The ultras, the [soccer] fan associations, have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment," Alaa Abdelfatah, a prominent Egyptian political blogger and democracy activist, told the network Al-Jazeera English. He added, tongue in cheek, "Maybe you should get the ultras to rule the country."

That sports fanatics might be at the vanguard of government protests shouldn't be all that surprising. In countries where authoritarian regimes silence most political opposition groups, soccer fan clubs are one of the few domains in which younger citizens are allowed to organize in associations not expressly connected to religion or the state. The soccer hard cores protesting in Egypt included youth activists, workers and Islamists who were fed up with the Mubarak government's inability to combat the nation's widespread poverty, unemployment and corruption. Taking on the police is nothing new for them; it happens all the time at games. While the Facebook page for the ultras of Al-Ahly, Cairo's most popular soccer club, said they weren't advocating a political position, it added that members were free to exercise their choice as individuals to join in the protests.

Egyptian authorities canceled last weekend's slate of Egyptian Premier League games, not least because they could have been launchpads for more demonstrations. Algeria did the same in early January to hinder protests over commodities prices, and Libya was set to suspend its league matches this week due to the events in neighboring Egypt. There was also an American sports angle to the story: The U.S. national team was set to play a friendly against Egypt in Cairo on Feb. 9. The cancellation of the game on Monday was yet another reminder that you can't separate the global game from the globe itself.

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PITCH FEVER National team players know Egypt's ultras are passionate; the police know they're unafraid of confrontation.



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