With soccer reeling from the violence in Egypt, players on the other side of the continent at the African Cup of Nations tried to make sense of the “death and sadness” now gripping their sport.
“While we are in the middle of playing in the most beautiful festival of African football, there are people dying in a stadium,” Gabon goalkeeper Didier Ovono said. “I’m truly sad for the Egyptian people. Football should be a party, not somewhere for settling scores.”
At least 74 people were killed in clashes between rival fans at a league game Wednesday. The riot at the stadium in Port Said erupted when Al-Masry fans stormed the field following a rare 3-1 win against Al-Ahly, one of Egypt’s most popular clubs. But the violence went beyond the deep rivalry between the teams.
A network of rabid fans known as Ultras vowed vengeance, accusing the police of intentionally letting rivals attack them because they have been at the forefront of protests over the past year, first against former leader Hosni Mubarak and now the military.
The African Cup, the continent’s soccer showpiece, is down to the quarterfinals this weekend: co-host Gabon vs. Mali, Ghana vs. Tunisia, Ivory Coast vs. Equatorial Guinea and Zambia vs. Sudan. These are enticing matchups involving strong teams alongside hopeful—and so far successful—underdogs.
But the celebrations will be put on hold when all four quarterfinals are preceded by a minute’s silence in honor of the fans who died when they were beaten, stabbed and crushed against a wall after the game in Port Said.
“It is not normal that players are attacked and that people must die in the stadium,” Gabon coach Gernot Rohr said. “I think it is very, very sad, very bad for football.”
Ivory Coast coach Francois Zahoui called it a “tragedy” and “great pity.”
“We are there to give joy and spread enthusiasm to the people, and if around the stadium there is only death and sadness, then we feel bad,” Zahoui said.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter described the violence in Egypt as a “black day for football.” Issa Hayatou, president of the African soccer federation, said the sport in Africa was “in a state of mourning.”
Zambia, which opens the knockout stages in Bata, Equatorial Guinea on Saturday, knows of soccer tragedy. In 1993, a plane crash off the coast of the Gabonese capital Libreville—venue for the Feb. 12 final—left 18 members of the national team dead.