by Mahmoud Fouly
CAIRO, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) -- Despite security concerns, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) resumed Saturday the matches of local premier league without fans, after a year of suspension over deadly riots that killed 74 and injured hundreds in early 2012.
Since the tragedy, most Egyptian sports officials, in addition to players and workers in the field, have been struggling to see the ball back in the court, yet the deteriorating security conditions and the constant chaotic protests the country has been going through made it a far-fetched idea.
The resumption of the premier league matches has stirred up debates in Egypt, with some oppose the thought over security concerns while some say the country's security institutions are able to secure the matches and that life should go on.
Security expert Adel al-Qalla, a retired armed forces general, told Xinhua that the current developments in the political scene have become more important to the public than football matches, stressing this timing for soccer resumption would create possible tension.
"The atmosphere is not suitable and the people are not prepared to be diverted from the political turmoil to football," al-Qalla said, demanding the delay of football activities until after the parliamentary elections.
"It would have been better to be resumed after the parliament is elected, as the new parliament could work on resolving any rising issues then and the presidency would not be the only responsible institution," he added.
General Salah Samak echoed al-Qalla's opinion that the timing was not right for resuming soccer activities. "It is not a well- studied decision," he said.
"The problems and the riots are not restricted to the court," Samak told Xinhua. "Although the matches are spectatorless, you cannot put fuel next to fire and not expect a flame."
Samak added that amid such political turmoil and security issues, the people were prepared for riot and friction, reiterating the decision was by all means "wrong" and that the premier league should have been further delayed until the country gets more stable.
"Anything wrong happens in a match, such as a friction between two players or a wrong decision by a referee could create riots outside the stadium," Samak noted.
However, sports officials see the picture from a different angle, as they believe the resumption of soccer activities will help Egyptians return to normal life and restore confidence in the capability of security forces.
"Football resumption is the best way to distract Egyptians from the ongoing turmoil and return them to normal life activities," Nasser Sadeq, former international referee and member of an Egyptian referee committee, told Xinhua.
Sadeq believes that if the country is unable to secure a football match, it means it is unable to secure anything.
"Securing the matches is not difficult and the league could have been resumed even earlier, regardless of the threats of Cairo 's al-Ahly fans," he said, referring to a group of al-Ahly fans call themselves "Ultras Ahlawy," who used to urge retaliation for their fellows killed in Port Said.
EFA expressed optimism about the resumption of the premier league, reassuring that they arranged with the Interior Ministry the security measures and ruling out the possibility of further riots, particularly that the matches were played without fans.
"The league is resumed despite the challenges and everything is just fine," Azmy Megahed, EFA media spokesman, told Xinhua.
Meanwhile, EFA member Hamada al-Masry said that the resumption of the league was a message to the whole world that Egypt is heading toward security and stability, noting that the soccer season may relieve around four million people whose income is based on football activities.
"Football represents a big financial support to a club, and it provides jobs for around three or four million people, including players, coaches, sports critics, workers, advertisers, and even the state TV and other channels that get broadcast rights," al- Masry explained to Xinhua.
Al-Masry expressed appreciation of the presidency and the Interior Ministry that provided the suitable security precautions to resume the season.
The season opening match was between the title holder Cairo- based al-Ahly and Ghzal al-Mahala team of Gharbiya governorate at a military stadium in Cairo, where al-Ahly scored a 1-0 win. The match went on peacefully without even skirmishes or friction inside or outside the court.
Former al-Ahly player Islam al-Shater expressed "great optimisim" about the resumption of the football season, reassuring that al-Ahly soccer fans, the Ultras, were Ok with it after a recent verdict ordered death sentence for 21 defendants over last year's riot tragedy.
"With the death sentences, I think the right of victims has been restored and there is no need to worry about the angry Ultras anymore. Some of them are friends of mine and they assured me they had no problem with the league resumption," al-Shater told Xinhua.
Although the first match reflected security reassurance, Egyptians are still divided between supporters and opponents of the premier league resumption at such a critical transitional stage the country is going through.