Egyptian football is no stranger to ugly scenes of crowd violence

By Farayi MungaziBBC African football journalist
Players run for safety as violence erupts in the match between Al-Masry and al-Ahly
Players run for safety as violence erupts in the match between Al-Masry and al-Ahly

The football world has been left in a state of shock following the violence in Egypt that left 74 people dead and more than 150 injured at the game between al-Masry and al-Ahly.

But while Egyptians may have the rightful reputation as one of the world's most passionate fans, they also have a dark side which inevitably manifests itself when things do not go their way on the pitch.

I experienced this first hand in 2003 when covering the final of the African Champions League - the continent's most prestigious club tournament.

Within seconds of Nigerian club Enyimba defeating local Egyptian side Ismaili, missiles rained down on the pitch as fans vented their anger at their team's performance.

As there were hardly any visiting supporters, the Ismaili fans picked on anyone they suspected of not being one of them, namely the police.

Being black, I stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of Arab faces. One shirtless fan started shouting obscenities in my direction, thinking I was a Nigerian journalist.

From that moment, the crowd grew even more frenzied, with another supporter grabbing a small BBC satellite on the edge of the VIP stand and thowing it at police officers trying to arrest one of his colleagues.

Before I knew it, an officer in riot gear had whisked me away to the safety of the dressing rooms.

I was to stay there for the next five hours as we waited for the orgy of violence, which had shifted away from the terraces into the streets of Ismailia, to end.

When things eventually calmed down, I saw a scene outside the ground that resembled the aftermath of a bomb blast - cars with smashed-out windows and all kinds of debris strewn everywhere.

However, in a nation with a proud footballing tradition, fan-related violence is not unique to Ismaili.

Fans of al-Ahly, the country's most successful club, remain the most talked about issue in Egyptian football.

The great Cairo club, known as the Red Devils, has a hardcore element known as Ultras, who have a particular reputation for violence.

Much of the violence can be traced to hostilities between al-Ahly Ultras and rival factions of clubs like al-Masry and Zamalek.

Mayhem threatens almost every match involving these teams, with police usually responding in large numbers.

When you speak to Egyptian football fans, particularly those of an al-Ahly or al-Masry, they exude a sense of ownership over their team.

Not only do al-Ahly and al-Masry supporters hurl crude insults at each other during matches, they also dislike each other intensely.

Football has long been a big positive in the lives of many Egyptians, a ray of light in the dark alley of poverty, unemployment and political repression that, until last year's revolution, was their lot.

This is why Egyptian football fans are some of the most passionate in the world, renowned for religious-style devotion to their teams.

The visual and vocal displays they put on during matches are very much a culture of the Egyptian game, intimidating many an opponent through the years.

They chant songs support of their team and set off fireworks, light flares and display provocative banners designed to goad the opposition.

However, the tragic loss of life during the match on Wednesday further tarnishes the image of a country that has produced African legends like Mahmoud El-Khatib, Mahmoud El-Gohary and Hossam Hassan.