Port Said, February 1, 2012.  At the end of the Al Masry – Al Ahly match, hundreds of spectators storm the away stands.  In a few minutes the number of dead and dying is in advance of seventy, whist the police stand by and watch.  

It is the price that the ‘Ahlawy’ – Al Ahly’s Ultras – pay for their political engagement.  They were the infantry of the revolution: thousands taking part in street fights against the regime (even though the group had left full freedom of choice with its members).

Since then – so goes the promise of the Ultras – no supporter will set foot in a stadium before justice is done.

At the beginning of March 2013, the Port Said tribunal confirmed the death penalty for 21 Al Masry supporters and sentences two police officers to fifteen years in jail. A month later, on the evening of April 7, the Ahlawy return to the stands.  The occasion is a Champions League first round tie against Kenya’s Tusker (following a 1-0 win for Al Ahly in the first leg), played at the Borg El Arab, 10 km from Alexandria.

“Hey mate, I can’t wait to be in the Curva. See you there”.

Gamal – a 26 year old with recollections of more battles than a Napoleonic veteran is an old guard Ultra.  At Port Said he escaped two would be murderers that were chasing him with a sword; “A sword, man … I mean, what the fuck! Until then I had only seen one in movies”.

The morning of the match, Cairo is a hell circle.  Thirty-five degrees, the tube on strike, traffic crazed and loud.  But nobody cares in the minivan that slowly hobbles toward the desert.  Next to us, two kids seat one on the other, laughing and waving an Al Ahly flag.  A third – deadly serious – breaks his silence only to ask for some water.  They are ten years old, and they go alone to the Curva for the first match open to supporters since the Port Said slaughter.  No passenger seems to find this strange.

When we are a few kilometres from the venue, the minivan pulls over, to let the assembled supporters disembark.  The three 10 year-old wannabe Ultras dash into the middle of the motorway, they swim through traffic like fishes in the sea, and in a few seconds they disappear onto the other side of the road and beyond.

We meet Gamal in a restaurant close to the stadium.  He is bursting with joy. “You’ll see the choreography, there is everything!”  At a nearby table, a boy fiddles with a folding metal bat.  He notices that we are staring at him.  We hasten to smile and he reciprocates, a touch perplexed.

The security measures are impressive.  Three check-points in the last kilometre before the stadium.  At least a hundred anti-riot police officers guard every gate.  Documents, searching, metal detectors.  Everywhere there are additional platoons ready to intervene.  It is impossible to quantify the presence of security forces, but at a first glance the throng of police officers cannot be far from 10,000.  Given such a caution, what we find a few meters from the Al Ahly stands is even more inexplicable; a small, unguarded building site, resplendent with rocks and iron bars.  But it doesn’t make a huge difference once we notice the amount of rockets, flares and assorted weaponry that the Ultras have smuggled onto the stands.

The Curva is filled – there are maybe 5,000 Ahlawy – while most of the giant stadium (86,000 seats, the second largest in Africa) looks empty.  We manage to reach the running track a few seconds after the beginning of the match.  Just in front of us, in the very last minutes before sunset, the Ahlawy choreography is unfurled: two huge portraits.  On the first a caricature of Marshal Tantawi – the former leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, according to the Ultras the real director of the Port Said slaughter.  On the second, instead, three rabid dogs. One wears an Army uniform, on another, a police one, the third, squeezed between the others, is dressed in green.  The colours of Al Masry.

Two seemingly endless lines of anti-riot police face the Curva.  Among them, undisputed king of the running track, the Ahlawy Capo moves up and down.  A bit older than 20, skinny as a reed, with a red baseball hat sat on a curly bush.  He does not limit himself to lead the chants.  He absorbs the singing, embodying the rhythm.  The supporters follow as if under hypnosis, a syllable for every movement of his arm.  A symbiosis unknown even to the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti.

Nearby, while the Capo conducts chants that are not complimentary to the police, the officials do not dare to brush against him.

The match is a side-dish and nothing more.  We do not notice the first goal of Al Ahly, scored just behind our shoulders.  And we would not even notice the second if it did not trigger a fuming celebration.  The few flares we had seen in the first 30 minutes suddenly become an impenetrable fog.  The Curva looks like a burning sea, whilst the tide of chants grows in anger. Irresistible, magnetic, violent.  And above all; ‘Hekayetna’ (‘Our Story’):

In Port Said, the victims saw treachery before death.  They saw a regime that presents chaos as its only alternative.

Sergeants sweep frantically the lines deployed on the running track.  The patrolmen, nervous, fix their helmets.

Unleash more of your dogs, and spread chaos everywhere.  I will never trust you, nor let you control me one more day.

The Curva explodes, and it is as if a single man with thousands of heads is jumping.  Tens of fans, clinging to the fence, follow the rhythm marked by Capo’s raging strokes.

Oh SCAF, you bastards. How much money is a martyr’s blood?  You sold our blood cheap: to protect the regime which you are a part of.

Only a metal barrier, that has never looked so fragile, separates the Ultras and the police.  Face to face, looking into the enemies’ eyes, fourteen months after the massacre.  Flares rain down.  Two other lines of officials arrive (1,000? 2,000?), resigned to confront the unavoidable. “Terrible rumours” confirms an Ultra near to us, “I heard that the people from Alexandria will attack the Ultras”.  Shortly after we reach a captain. “It is going from bad to worse. This match must be halted right now”. The Curva, in a trance, beats on unceasingly.  What orders do you have? “We stand still. But if they attack we certainly won’t stand watching”. Only a photographer, a guy who seems to have seen much worse days, stays seraphic. “Tonight it’s just a show, nothing will happen” he offers, going on shooting while the flares fall all around. “But if l’m wrong, run like hell toward the dressing room.”

At half-time a brawl erupts in the stand.  We suspect a quarrel between old-guard Ultras and some riot thirsty kids.  After the match, Gamal will tell us another story. “The Bedouins. A lot of them live around Borg El Arab, and they wanted to reaffirm that the stadium is their stuff. Nothing worth telling, just a few minutes”.

And then, just when it seemed doomed to become a tsunami, the wave of anger deflates.  Suddenly nothing more rains down from the Curva, and the desperate aggressiveness of the previous moments disappear from the Ultras’ voices.  An artificial calm reigns, almost unreal.  An armed truce.  The Capo is no longer in sight on the running track.  Perhaps he disappeared among the thousands of policemen.  Or perhaps – more likely – he reached his mates, in order to avoid an escalation that might translate into tragedy.  On March 9 – facing the disappointment of the grass roots supporters, who wanted harsher penalties for the policemen – we saw the leaders struggle to cool down the fans crowded in front of the club’s headquarters.  Maybe the same is happening right now.

In the middle of the second half, the Ahlawy unroll tens of banners.  It is homage to the supporter groups that demonstrated their solidarity after Port Said: Bayern Munich, Naples, even Zamalek’s ‘White Knights’, the historic enemies of Ahlawy in Cairo.

The match has no suspense.  Al Ahly are clearly the superior team and limit themselves to controlling the game, contributing to the appeasement of tensions.  The players’ fear is epitomised by their hasty exit from the field.  Only a couple make a shy attempt at applause to the Curva.  The stands empty in a few minutes.

We find Gamal at a fast-food outlet.  He is happy. “You can’t imagine how much we missed all that” he says, while joking euphorically with his mates.  One of them, a student in Europe, postponed his flight to attend the great return.

But the gold medal goes to Omar, an architect who drives us back.  He endured the trip from Cairo only to watch fifteen minutes of the match.  Once finished at work, he ran to his house.  He greeted his father (“Bye dad, I’m going out for a while”), jumped into his car and set ablaze the streets to Borg El Arab.  Now he apologises. “I’m a bit tired, do you mind if l go easy?”  Next to him, Gamal plays with the radio. “Did you enjoy the match?” we ask. “I didn’t watch it” he answers, tobacco and paper in his hands, “I was singing”. “What’s up in Italy? You used to be the guiding light of the Ultras culture, now … fortunately the Neapolitans are there”. Then he takes out his folding bat (by far the most popular item among the Ahlawy). “Relax, no problem. But if we bump into some cops…” he laughs, while the shape of the lorries gets blurred in the obscurity of the desert.

When we talk about politics, Gamal is bitterly sharp: “Listen. I was in Tahrir since the very beginning. I woke up in a hospital after Mohammed Mahmoud. I lost 72 brothers in Port Said. Now I’m fed up. I make the revolution from my sofa, and I fight only for my group, something which I believe him. This country is not ready for democracy. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is”.

As soon as we enter Zamalek, he lets the window down and sings a minute-long sequence of insults against the historical rivals of Al Ahly. In Gamal’s voice there is a desperate lust for normality. The need to breathe, to get rid of a burden that would knock down an elephant. The Ahlawy’ s comeback to the stands represents a giant step toward the illusion of a lost routine. But what does it mean for Egypt, for a country lost in a labyrinthine of transition? Will it last? Inshallah.

By Andrea Luchetta

Translation and additional editing from Emmanuel Daile Mulle.

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona