Empty stands await giants
TUNISIAN rivals Esperance and Etoile Sahel and Egyptian heavyweights Al Ahli and Zamalek can look forward to derbies after Tuesday's draw for this year's African Champions League, but the matches are likely to be played in empty stadiums.
The fear of crowd violence in north Africa, allied to the tenuous political situation following last year's Arab Spring, mean authorities remain wary of allowing fans to attend matches in Tunisia and Egypt.
Ordinarily, having holders Esperance and Etoile Sahel in the same group and Cairo rivals Al Ahli and Zamalek in another would have been greeted with eager anticipation. They have a history of tense and passionate tussles in the group phase of the continent's top club competition.
However, any enthusiasm at Tuesday's draw is tempered by the fact that all four clubs have been forced to play behind closed doors this year.
That situation is unlikely to change before the Champions League gets under way in July.
Esperance and 2007 winners Etoile Sahel share an intense rivalry that has dominated Tunisian football for almost two decades. They are due to play each other in Group A twice in the space of three weeks in August.
In Group B, Al Ahli and Zamalek will resume a rivalry almost a century old towards the end of July. Their return group game is set for mid-September.
However, soccer in Egypt has effectively been banned since the deadly riots in Port Said on February 1 when 74 spectators, most of them Al Ahli fans, died after being attacked by those of rival club Al Masry. It led to the cancellation of the league season and all domestic competitions.
Since then the only football played in Egypt has been Al Ahli and Zamalek's matches in the early knockout rounds of the Champions League. Most of it has been behind closed doors though authorities allowed limited attendance at some games.
Last month, security forces blamed for standing by during the Port Said attacks said they would refuse to oversee top-flight matches after being accused by a parliamentary inquiry of shoddy policing.
Soccer and politics in Egypt have been closely intertwined since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak's regime, where hard-core "Ultras" fans, backing the Cairo clubs, emerged as symbols of the uprising.
In Tunisia, the league was postponed for several months after the toppling of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January last year and then plagued by pitch invasions and hooliganism when clubs returned to action. Authorities quickly ordered all games to be played behind closed doors this season.