The locals say that Egypt lost the 2010 World Cup (that’s football/soccer, to the unawares) largely because its taxi system was so bad (the meter is but a decorative concept, seat belts optional and a pricing system based on the quality of your shoes). But if the FIFA authorities had seen the crush outside the stadium last week as legit ticket holders such as yours truly tried to get into the Egypt v Zambia qualifier for the World Cup, they would have had another reason.
The stadium, in the north of the city, holds 80,000 people in three classes. The third-class tickets to the match cost just 5 pounds (about A$1.70) and reportedly sold out in two hours, while our luxurious first class tickets (forget Gold Class cinema, it’s seats, people, you get seats!) cost LE50 or A$17-ish.
We rocked up late, only 1½ hours before the match, and once our patriotic Egypt flags had had their sticks removed by the guards, and our bodies searched for lighters (hello, this is Egypt?? People smoke professionally here), we were let at the gate. Except there was a crowd of say 300 people at the gate, all with legitimate tickets, all clamouring to get in. Apparently the stadium was full.
“This is so … Egypt,” muttered one of the group as we joined the mass which was attempting to strain itself through the gates. So it was shoulders to the wheel, the boys made a circle around us two girls, and we pushed, like everyone else, to the steel turnstile gates ahead of us, the only things between us and football utopia. A guy near us called out, “You have girls with you! Go up ahead! They’ll surely let you in!”
Someone dropped food on the ground and it was trampled into a brown sludge that stuck to our shoes. When we got to the top, we were all separated, and there was a fence between us and the gate, which we climbed, bodies shoving and groaning.
“Does it ever get like this in Australia?” asked Amr.
“Only during the Boxing Day sales,” I told him. But as I was lifted off my feet when the crowd surged once again, I thought that nobody in their right mind would be doing this for a pair of cheap knickers.
We finally got through, I was plucked free by a guard who saw my white face and hauled me out, shoving me through the gate. Once in, we found the third-class boys had taken over half of first class seats, mostly handsome, wide-mouthed young boys, cheeky little buggers who fought and crowed and shouted naughtily through the whole game.
The stadium was a sea of flags and the orchestra a series of hand-held and big drums that rolled like a war march, as the stadium chanted, “Misr! Misr! Misr!” (Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!).
The cameras picked up the president’s son (and unofficial president-elect) Gamal Mubarak, and Samira and I had strips of black, white and red, the Egyptian colours, painted across our faces. Egyptians also do Mexican waves, though I’m not sure what they’re called here. Everyone wore something red, the girls co-ordinating their higaabs (headscarves) in the national colours.
Zambia wasn’t given a hope in hell against Egypt, the current African champions, so when they tied 1-1, the devastation amongst the home crowd was palpable. The pleas to the umpire, the entreaties, the heads in hands… some just stood up in the crowd and held their arms open wide in supplication.
But Egypt just couldn’t get past Zambia’s clever, hard-working goalkeeper, and we filed out quietly, our flags drooping along with the hopes for an Egyptian victory. A few people threw empty bottles toward the by-now empty pitch, and despondency descended on the cold city that suddenly seemed a lot darker.