As we’ve indicated before, we learned a great deal about filming African soccer matches from our trip to Sierra Leone in September 2011 to make a short film about Kei Kamara. One of the many things we picked up on that adventure was that gameday excitement starts well before kickoff.
In Sierra Leone, we had the privilege of riding in the coach’s van on the way to the game. Here in Egypt, however, we learned that content featuring the Pharaohs was in such high demand that even the rights to broadcast the team’s ride to the stadium were sold to the evening football programs. No matter, we thought. We’d still want to film the motorcade’s procession down the dusty highway so we could capture the fans lining the street.
We weren’t the only ones with this idea.
As the bus pulled out of the hotel, our driver Redda joined the line of cars. Between the team officials, military, police and other media, there were probably five cars in front of us. Redda rectified that at the first turn, making a daring inside move that vaulted us to the second position. We were off.
This area of Alexandria has long stretches of open road, more or less highways, divided by a brush median and bordered by everything from bars to fruitstands. There is no barrier that separates the road from the landscape, and the drivers in the motorcade—including our own—utilized every last inch afforded by the wide lanes.
Using a combination of skill and fearlessness, Redda worked our way to the front of the line, cutting off both a vehicle full of AK-47-wielding military men and, as we realized as we rocketed past them, Coach Bradley’s wife and daughter (it wasn’t our intent to do so and we quickly instructed Redda to fall back and allow both the military and the Bradleys to resume their rightful spot in the motorcade).
Dropping back in the procession allowed us an excellent view to the madness that unfolded around us. There were the cars making impossible turns in attempt to find daylight between the bus and the military van. There was the truck bursting with chicken cages whose driver punched the gas to keep up with the team, only to have to swerve at the last minute, almost dumping his cargo along the side of the road. And, perhaps my favorite, there was the frantic reporter, steering wheel in his left hand, microphone in his right, animatedly speaking to his shotgun-riding cameraman, detailing the team’s every move as he sped beside the bus like he was tracking a tornado.
We zipped through roadblocks as part of the motorcade, but when we were stopped for a check of our press passes at the gates to Egyptian Army Stadium, the place lived up to its name: flanking both sides of the high sandstone walls were massive armored vehicles, outfitted with grenade launchers and men standing by, ready to operate them. Fully kitted out military personnel surrounded the entrance, looking more like they were preparing for the climatic final battle of a Michael Bay movie instead of checking press credentials. It was intimidating.
But our fixers had done the proper groundwork and after speaking with the appropriate officials from the Egyptian Football Association, we weren’t just waved in, we were welcomed, once more, to Egypt.
Once inside the gates, we were quickly escorted towards the field. It was surreal. The game had huge implications for the nation’s World Cup dreams, but the parking lot was empty. There was no tailgating, no balls being kicked back and forth, no vuvuzela vendors. Only soldiers stood in the barren expanse of concrete (FIFA had mandated the game be played without fans to prevent riots like the ones that left 74 dead in February).
We had little time to consider the image. Quickly, we descended into the bowels of the stadium. We walked out of the tunnel and onto the field. Per FIFA regulations, we were only allowed to have one photographer on the field—video was not permitted. Chad was deemed the man of honor. He was given an official photographer’s vest (his first) and camped out along the rest of the pros. Clay, Ty, Ahmed and I found our way to prime seats at midfield and settled in for the match.
Though fans weren’t allowed, someone had gone to great lengths to transform the stadium. We had been there two nights earlier and seen nothing but empty seats. We expected the same tonight. Instead, black, red and white covered the stadium. Huge letters spelled out EGYPT. It was impressive—the attention to detail made clear what Coach had said to us the day before: if possible, every person in Egypt would be at the game.
All eyes were on Coach Bradley as he exited the tunnel before the anthem—photographers congregated around him and snapped away. The first thing he did? Turn towards the empty stands and seek out his family. When he found them, a wide smile crossed his face and he waved. They weren’t sitting far from us, but even if they had been, we would’ve felt the pride that radiated from their box. With the hubbub that comes with 80,000 fans removed, it felt like we were privy to a special moment, one of a handful since we’ve been here that have made this game feel that much more important.
A smattering of officials and press filled the stands, but when the band came out and played the anthems, we couldn’t escape the feeling that this would be a hard match for Egypt. Without the fan presence, it felt like a practice. How would the Pharaohs respond?
Egypt dominated the first 45 minutes; it was the type of half that, if there had been fans there, the swell of emotion with each possession would’ve made for riveting football. Instead, the Pharaohs had to settle for the exasperation and excitement of the few dozen people fortunate enough to be there. (Incidentally, even a small number of passionate Egyptians can make a good amount of noise; enough so that an official admonished the “crowd” and said that if they made any more racket, FIFA would call the game because the stadium was supposed to be empty. It was so quiet after his threat that when a ringing cell phone would break the silence, it felt like a Sunday sermon had been interrupted).
The first half was played to a draw and, though we desperately wanted to watch and photograph the second half, duty called. We had planned to head to a local café to film reactions to the match. Ahmed had found a place near our hotel that would allow us to film. Of course, when we arrived there, a power outage meant that we had to scramble and find a new location. We scooted across the street where we were given the thumbs up to film.
It was there we watched as Egypt grabbed a 1-0 lead that quickly turned into 2-0. Though the Pharaohs coasted to the victory, the nervous local patrons didn’t exhale until the final whistle blew.
And when it did, horns blared on the street and men shook each other’s hands. The feeling, however, wasn’t quite what I expected. It wasn’t a raucous celebration, rather, it was more pedestrian. The feeling seemed to be that finally Egypt had gotten back to business… and business was good.
Tomorrow, we head to Cairo to shoot some b-roll. Now, we’re off to recover.
The CPP Crew