One prime example is Egypt, where the game since the early twentieth century has facilitated a powerful and often politicized stage for national self-projection, identification and reflection. In my book, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, masculinity, and uneasy politics, I provide a detailed ethnographic and historical account of such processes between the 1990s and 2019.
The book shows that the late Mubarak era was a period of Egyptian history when football played a particularly active role in the national project. In the 2000s, the nation was swept away by a heady football hysteria as the male national football team achieved unprecedented success. The sport became an important avenue through which Egyptian men learned how to act, talk, behave and feel. Attuned to the growing influence of football on the national stage—and to how the sport shaped masculinity in particular—the Mubarak family exploited the sport as an efficient instrument to be one with the people, and shore up legitimacy and popularity.
In 2011, however, the government’s interest in football came to an abrupt end. The 25 January revolution not only ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign but also pushed many Egyptian citizens to question the political role that football had played under the old regime. At the same time, a new kind of young supporter—the so-called “Ultras”—developed a novel and more radical style of football fandom that posed a serious challenge to the establishment’s ideals, aesthetics and gender roles.
In the past few years, the army-led counterrevolution has crushed the revolution inside Egypt’s national game. The Ultras’ project has been devastated, and football’s ability to epitomize the nation and shape its masculinities is not what it used to be. As football fans around the world tune in to the World Cup in Qatar, President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime is rather turning its back on the game, which used to constitute a centerpiece of Egyptian nation building.
The Egyptian Football Man
Although football has long been Egypt’s most popular spectator sport, the final years of Mubarak’s presidency represented its peak. Especially after the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations, which Egypt both hosted and won, the nation was swept away by a football hype with wide-ranging ramifications well outside stadiums and training grounds.
The sports boom resulted from several interlinked factors. Strong advertising revenue and the ownership of clubs by state institutions—including the army, police and gas and oil companies—contributed to the professional league’s financial success, turning it into the wealthiest league in Africa. A growing number of private satellite television channels allotted an increasing percentage of their programming to broadcasting, discussing and analyzing the national league and the national team. Football played an essential part in the plots of several Egyptian movies, including Ana mish ma‘hum (2007) and Wahid sifr (2009). Mega stars like Nancy Ajram and Sherine Abdel Wahab released hit songs that more or less explicitly addressed Egypt’s football heroes. In those years, it was difficult to delineate the precise boundaries of the game’s reach: actors, artists and politicians mingled in the VIP sections of stadiums, while football players and coaches frequented celebrity parties and events featuring politicians and regime-associated businessmen.
In the years before the 2011 Revolution, an unprecedented string of victories brought the brew of money, media, fame and football to a boiling point. In 2006, 2008 and 2010, the Egyptian national team won three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations, and the biggest Cairo club, al-Ahly, took home as many African Champions League titles between 2005 and 2008. These successes incited nationwide popular celebrations. After each continental triumph, tens of thousands of citizens gathered in streets and squares in cities and towns across the country. Sometimes the festivities—a unique expression of collective affect in public space during an era otherwise dominated by severe police repression—continued for days.
The football craze also brought to the fore particular masculinities built around national passions. To pass as a “normal” man in Egypt in the late 2000s, it was crucial to love football feverishly, rejoice in the national team’s victories, display passion when one’s favorite club was playing and show fanatical animosity toward opponents. Egyptian movies from the era illustrate how a normalized establishment masculinity was tied to support for football, as the sport was time again cast as followed by “everyone.” By the same logic, the movies portrayed men who do not like football as marginal, suspect or even dangerous figures. The stern Islamist and the elite intellectual constituted two recurring stereotypes. Neither of these figures ever truly represented the football nation that was taking shape.
Satellite television presented another sphere for portraying the character of the Egyptian football man in this era. In particular, the hosts and pundits of Egypt’s daily football talk shows—a rampantly popular genre combining sports, gossip, politics and light entertainment—embodied many of this figure’s typical traits. The masculinity on display in these shows deviated markedly from the ideals of respectability, education and meritocracy that, according to anthropologist Walter Armbrust, had been promoted in nationalist popular culture from the late nineteenth century until the 1980s. The television hosts’ popularity and fame rather stemmed from a mixture of pugnacity, nouveau riche taste and an ethic of victory at all costs—emblematic, in Armbrust’s analysis, of a turn to “vulgarity” that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such shows showcased the Egyptian football man as someone who liked to win, boast, banter and have fun. He embodied a somewhat vulgar and chauvinist masculinity that defined the late Mubarak era.
Whether incidentally or not, this masculinity happened to align with the public personae of Hosni Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa. Unlike his predecessors, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat, Mubarak did not primarily build legitimacy and popularity on performances of respectability or elaborate speeches. Especially in the final decade of his presidency, nepotism and corruption became rampant. Gamal Mubarak and his businessmen friends dominated the political and economic spheres. Few citizens would praise the ruling family’s ethics or integrity. What every Egyptian knew, however, was that the president and his sons were truly passionate football fans. In the stadium or in front of the television, they came across as typical Egyptian men, cheering for their team just like any other citizen. In this way, the victorious football boom provided the presidential family with a unique and timely chance to be one with a successful, slightly vulgar but by all means normalized version of the Egyptian nation and its people. In the socioeconomically and politically dire years that preceded the 2011 uprisings, the national sport presented a rare social field where the Mubarak family enjoyed popularity, luster and legitimacy.
Revolutionary Football Masculinities
The 2011 revolution not only terminated Mubarak’s 30-year-long presidency. It also dismantled the peculiar national football frenzy and the national football man that had given Mubarak’s kleptocratic regime popular appeal. Cracks began to show at least a year before demonstrations started in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. In November 2009, Egypt played two highly anticipated World Cup qualifiers against Algeria—the first in Cairo and the second in Omdurman in Sudan. Football fans with whom I conduct research in Cairo have often described these two games as the peak of Egypt’s nationalist football hysteria. The coverage of football in the media was extremely intense. Aggressive anti-Algerian rhetoric and supporter violence surrounded the matches, triggering a serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
The event also prompted a distinct shift in the public debate. In the weeks after Egypt lost the decisive second match to Algeria and missed qualifying for the World Cup, voices critical of the nation’s football obsession began to emerge. In the press, many commentators argued that the Egyptian people’s obsession with football was breeding “fanaticism” (ta‘assub) and harmful political divisions. Notably, the figures criticizing football in this moment were often precisely those Islamists and intellectuals previously marginalized by the establishment model of masculinity associated with football. In the wake of the devastating defeat, those who claimed to represent a more “respectable” (muhtaram) masculinity seemed to strike back against a football nation they saw as dominated by vulgarity and masculine chauvinism. In this sense, November 2009 anticipated transformations that would take place after January 2011. During Egypt’s revolutionary years, football-skeptical Islamists and secular intellectuals dominated politics and public debates. Now, it was the Mubarak era’s vulgar football men who had found themselves marginalized.
The 2011 revolution also coincided with a revolt inside Egypt’s national game. The key players in this football revolution were members of new kinds of supporter organizations that first appeared in Egyptian football stadiums in 2007. The “Ultras,” as the new fans were called, introduced a more dedicated and orchestrated way of cheering for the country’s most popular clubs. Taking inspiration from existing Ultras groups in southern Europe and the Maghrib, they brought together a more international style of football fandom markedly different from what generally occurred in Egyptian stadiums. The Ultras dressed in a specific manner; their songs had elaborate lyrics; they used flags, pyrotechnical flares and graffiti excessively; they sang and danced for 90 minutes without interruption; they insisted that football should be watched live at the stadium, not on television. By 2009, Ultras Ahlawy (supporting the Cairo powerhouse al-Ahly) and Ultras White Knights (supporting arch-rival al-Zamalek) were able to mobilize tens of thousands of young men in their teens and early 20s at Cairo Stadium. Unsurprisingly, this booming supporter phenomenon precipitated a backlash from the football establishment and the security state. In the media, the Ultras were portrayed as troublemakers and thugs. They frequently clashed with security forces inside and outside the stadium.
Although refusing to take an official political stance, the Ultras played an important role from the very beginning of the 2011 revolution. The groups’ sheer size, strict organization and experience defending themselves against the police proved invaluable during clashes and street fights. Time and again, the Ultras’ characteristic aesthetics—flags, t-shirts, flares—were visible on the battlefront at and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square as well as in cities in the provinces. Their provocative songs with lyrics mocking the faltering police state became a central part of the revolutionary repertoire.
The Ultras’ revolutionary prowess also resulted from their unorthodox way of cheering at the stadium. Their young and radical manner of football fandom contrasted distinctly with the establishment-aligned fan practices and aesthetics of the late-Mubarak era. In a stark contrast to the older, more media-centered fan practices that used to dominate, some Ultras interlocutors depicted the stadium as a space of “fun and freedom.” Challenging the establishment’s emotional-national football masculinity from the inside, the Ultras embodied and lived a new way of being an Egyptian football fan and, to some extent, an Egyptian man.
Throughout 2012, the Ultras’ aesthetics and emotions spilled from stadiums and into the streets. This shift was initiated on February 1, when 72 members of Ultras Ahlawy were killed in a gruesome massacre at a stadium in Port Said. Although no conclusive evidence has established exactly what transpired, many Egyptians believe that the army and/or police organized the attack, either by infiltrating the home fans who stormed the visiting Ahly supporters’ stadium section or by hiring baltagiya (“thugs”) to carry out the violence. Television footage from the match seems to support this supposition, showing the police who were present doing little to intervene. After the Port Said tragedy, the Egyptian government canceled domestic football matches for a full year. Instead of attending football games, Ultras Ahlawy embarked on a protracted campaign for justice for those killed as well as for far-reaching reforms of Egypt’s notoriously corrupt football organizations. They organized demonstrations and sit-ins, covered Cairo’s walls with graffiti honoring the Port Said martyrs, interrupted training sessions and television shows and ransacked the Egyptian Football Association’s headquarters.
For about a year, this activist push for justice, retribution and reforms gathered significant popular support. In a revolutionary period when many former football fans felt ambivalent about the game they used to love because it seemed too associated with violence and the dirty politics of the Mubarak regime, the Ultras came across as one of few football actors in sync with the national zeitgeist. The groups’ principled actions, their fight against corruption and for the rights of the families of those killed and the way they used violence in a bold yet purposeful and ordered way impressed many outsiders.
That al-Ahly and the national team’s immensely popular playmaker, Mohamed Aboutrika, actively backed the Ultras’ campaign contributed to their popular standing. Arguably the brightest star of his generation, Aboutrika was one of very few players who had kept a distance from the Mubarak regime during the boom years. He is widely known for his morals, respectability and integrity, and he actively backed the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Muhammad Mursi before and after the June 2012 elections. In 2011 and 2012, it was difficult to find anyone in Egypt who did not love Aboutrika. When he expressed his unreserved support for the Ultras, his unquestionable respectability spilled onto the supporter movement, increasing their appearance as revolutionary role models.
Even a Counterrevolution Cannot Turn Back Time
In 2013, Egypt’s revolutionary momentum was defeated by an army-led counterrevolution. The football revolution was no exception. Already in the beginning of the year, the Ultras had begun to lose their status as revolutionary role models. The intricate balance between violent action and respectability that had rendered their masculinity so well in tune with the revolution’s ideals and ambiance proved impossible to uphold. Following a widely criticized public demonstration by Ultras Ahlawy celebrating the death sentences of 21 fans from Port Said for their involvement in the previous year’s massacre, and a series of violent attacks on public property, increasing numbers of citizens began to perceive Ultras as thuggish troublemakers. That winter was also a moment of deep polarization between the Islamist Mursi regime and the secular opposition—the backing of the outspoken Mursi supporter Mohamed Aboutrika, which had previously rendered the fans almost untouchable, was no longer an obvious asset.
After the military coup in July 2013, the situation went from bad to worse. As the Egyptian security state regrouped, the Ultras—like most revolutionary factions—faced a relentless wave of repression. Taking revenge for the years that Ultras’ visions had dominated public discourses about the game, the football media and the Football Association smeared the fans ruthlessly, associating them with the demonized Mursi government. The police and the judiciary also joined forces, arresting and prosecuting hundreds of Ultra leaders and rank-and-file members. Other members of the fan groups decided to leave Egypt, often ending up in a prolonged exile. By 2018, Egypt’s biggest Ultras group, Ultras Ahlawy, formally conceded and dissolved the group. The second biggest group, Ultras White Knights, is still formally active, yet its activities are scattered and erratic at best.
One recent example of popular disenchantment occurred when Egypt narrowly lost a decisive World Cup qualifier to Senegal in March 2022, thus missing out on the upcoming tournament in Qatar. Without a doubt, many Egyptians were hugely disappointed after the setback. As I walked home through Cairo that night, the city was unusually silent, marked by defeat, and yet, most fans shrugged it off surprisingly quickly. A day or two later, football was no longer the main talking point in the media or in cafes. Some friends even argued that it was better that Egypt had lost: the team was playing poor and boring football—sending this group of players to the World Cup could only end in embarrassment. Compared to the intense shock and public outcry that engulfed the nation after the November 2009 defeat to Algeria, the loss to Senegal seemed like a non-event. The contrast between the two defeats and two missed World Cups suggests a palpable shift in football’s centrality in the national consciousness.
As the world’s eyes look to Qatar, the headiest days of Egypt’s football politics seem to belong to the past. At least for the moment, the national game has lost its previously unmatched ability to capture the nation’s attention and trigger truly national passions and debates. Consequentially, football no longer delineates normative national gender roles. Few films produced in 2022 would use football to illustrate who is and who is not a normal Egyptian man. Pop stars rarely sing about football players these days.
This marginalization of football in the national project provides a clue as to why the current political elite does not seem to care much about the sport, despite relatively good results. At first blush, the last five years might appear to be a very successful period in Egyptian football history. The national team reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017 and 2022, and qualified for its first World Cup in 28 years in 2018. Al-Ahly has reached the final of the African Champions League five times in the last six years (winning the tournament twice), and al-Zamalek won the second major African club tournament, the Confederation Cup, in 2019.
Despite these successes, the Sisi regime has made surprisingly few attempts to associate itself with the country’s football teams. The president neither talks about the sport with the same frequency or intensity as Mubarak nor makes the same efforts to come across as a passionate football fan. Discerning the chicken from the egg in this process is challenging, but clearly, the relative disregard for football among the country’s rulers relates to the game’s decreased significance to the nation. The sport is still omnipresent throughout Egypt and may still be a fertile breeding ground for masculine subject formation. Yet, at present, the Egyptian football man no longer embodies the Egyptian nation.
[Carl Rommel is a Researcher in the Department of Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University.]
 Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1996).
 Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021), 59-81.
 James Montague, Among the Ultras: A Journey with the World’s Most Extreme Fans (London: Penguin, 2020). Muhammad Gamal Bashir, Kitab al-Ultras: ‘Andama Tata‘adda al-Jamahir al-Tabi‘a (Cairo: Dar Dawwin, 2011)
 Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021), 94–98.
 Ibid., 109-137.
 Ibid., 139-148.