By Tom Finn
CAIRO (Reuters) – Soccer provided Egyptians with a welcome distraction from the country’s mounting political strife on Wednesday as holders Al Ahli drew 1-1 with arch rivals Zamalek in the African Champions League.
Roars in Cairo’s streets came from street cafes rather than protests as supporters watched the game on television after it was moved to the Red Sea resort of El Gouna having originally been scheduled to take place in Alexandria on Sunday.
The match came on the same day Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for mass protests on Friday against backers of the Islamist president they ousted earlier this month amid demonstrations against his rule.
“Blood, anger and rising prices. That’s Egypt nowadays … it’s like breathing in fumes,” English teacher Hossam Ibrahim said as he drank tea in a crowded cafe in downtown Cairo.
“Thank god for football. It’s a breath of clean air.”
Zamalek had taken a surprise eighth-minute lead when Ahmed Gaafar blasted the ball home from close range before Mohamed Aboutrika equalized in the 54th minute from the spot as the two Cairo-based sides drew their opening Group A match.
The fixture was moved from seaside metropolis Alexandria to a tiny stadium in El Gouna, 436 km from Cairo, as a precaution after 74 people were killed in a brawl between rival groups of soccer fans after a match in 2012.
Egyptian media reported an agreement was reached before kickoff with fan groups from the two clubs to allow in spectators with the game originally poised to take place behind closed doors.
Egyptian authorities canceled all domestic football after the downfall of president Mohamed Mursi this month but allowed the Al Ahli and Zamalek, who have a passionate following in the Arab world, to continue playing in the Champions League.
It was the second year in succession that the domestic league had been prematurely ended.
Egypt’s rifts faded for a moment as the game got underway on Wednesday afternoon and soccer fans – both supporters and opponents of Mursi – squeezed in front of screens and into coffee shops to watch the action.
“I’m with the White Knights of Zamalek!” said Mohamed Muwafiq, a 32-year old shoe shop owner, dressed in the club’s trademark red and white.
“Football makes me angry but in a good way. Protests and politics bring me nothing but pain.”
There was persistent firing of fire crackers and smoke bombs but the match passed off in a carnival atmosphere.
“In a poor country with low social and economic mobility … just being out and doing something that doesn’t cost money, it’s an escape,” said Adel Abdel Ghafar, an Egypt scholar at the Australian National University whose great-grandfather co-founded Al Ahli in 1907.
“The country is in chaos, perhaps football will distract the masses if only for 90 minutes.”
(Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Noah Browning and Sonia Oxley)