World Cup Qualifying Match Tests Cairo's Security

Ghana qualifies for its third straight World Cup — defeating Egypt 7-3 on total goals after a 2-1 loss. This was the first international match in Cairo in two years. A bloody soccer riot there left dozens dead in 2011. It was also the first match since authorities lifted the curfew that went into effect after widespread clashes between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, protesting the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.

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Cairo's Tahrir Square was crowded yesterday. First, there were protestors, as there have been so often these past couple of years. Then the attention turned to a giant screen, as all of Egypt seemed to pause to watch a pivotal match. The country was hosting its first international soccer game since the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The Pharaohs were pitted against Ghana in a qualifying match for the World Cup. Egypt won the game, but didn't score enough goals to make it to the World Cup. And, as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, all the cheering only provided a brief distraction from the country's unrest.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The soccer match was held at a military-owned stadium in Cairo, and it fell on a day of tension in the capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

FADEL: Anti-police protesters took to the streets in the hundreds, demonstrating against security forces, marking the second anniversary of clashes with police that left nearly 50 people dead at the time. The protesters filed into Tahrir Square, the birthplace of Egypt's uprising.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

FADEL: Although the demonstrations were quite small, they represented a change. This time the protesters were not supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. They were a mix of leftists and revolutionary activists. They say they feel caught in the middle of a fight between two undemocratic forces: the army and the Brotherhood. So often, their voices are lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

FADEL: Holding portraits of slain friends and fellow revolutionaries, people chanted: Down with military rule.

Elected President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown by the military in the summer. Since then, more than a thousand people have been killed in a wide crackdown on the group.

AYMAN BAHGAT: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Protester Ayman Bahgat said he came out to demand retribution for those that died. He says he wants a state that isn't ruled by the military or the Brotherhood.

There were brief clashes between rival groups of protesters, some who support the army, and others who don't. Police eventually cleared the square. At least one person was killed, and 17 people were injured in the clashes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

FADEL: But the soccer game later Tuesday night did briefly quiet the city. It was the first international game in the capital since the 2011 uprising. People cheered in cafes, and demonstrators watched on a big screen in Tahrir Square.

Prior to the game, there was intense security presence around the city. The capital has been the scene of deep political turmoil since the July 3rd coup, and soccer has, at times, led to violence.

In 2012, a massive riot at a soccer game between two Egyptian teams left nearly 80 people dead and more than 1,000 injured. Ghana made multiple requests to have the game moved outside of Cairo. But FIFA, international soccer's governing body, said Egypt's security measures were good enough. The teams were provided with police escorts and security at their hotels and training sessions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

FADEL: Besides a few flares set off by fans in the stand, the game went off without a hitch. Egypt won the match 2-to-1. But they couldn't make up for the humiliating loss last month against Ghana of 6-to-1. If Egypt had qualified, it would have been the first time it made the World Cup since 1990.

After the game, the American who coaches the Egyptian team, Bob Bradley, gave an interview to a local TV channel.

BOB BRADLEY: I'm very sorry that I couldn't lead the national team to the World Cup. This was the dream for all the Egyptians.

FADEL: He has said in the past that he would leave if the team didn't make the World Cup. He had hoped that soccer could unite a deeply divided Egypt.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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