It took a global pandemic to close the stadiums to fans in England, but supporters in Mohamed Elneny’s home country of Egypt have been absent for the best part of a decade, as a consequence of some truly tragic and horrific scenes witnessed at football matches there.
In this exclusive interview with the matchday programme, our midfielder tells us about the challenges of playing in Africa, and how it prepared him for life in the Premier League.
When you’ve played in the most hostile atmospheres that Africa has to offer, there isn’t that much that can faze you in the domestic game. That’s a good job for Mo Elneny, because his first-ever start in the Premier League, shortly after arriving from Basel in early 2016, came at White Hart Lane in a high-pressure north London derby.
That was just a few days after coming on as a sub for the first time in the league – at Old Trafford. And just over a week later it was time to make his Champions League bow in front of 76,000 at the Nou Camp, Barcelona, an occasion he marked with his first Gunners goal.
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So a quiet introduction into life at Arsenal it most certainly wasn’t, but the 29-year-old midfielder wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“My first-ever start in the Premier League – away to Tottenham!” he says smiling.“I knew that it was a big derby game for us, and I wouldn’t say I was shocked by the atmosphere. In fact I really, really enjoyed playing in an atmosphere like that. I enjoyed every moment.
“The fans were crazy for every minute in the game and I remember the days before the game as well. Vic Akers [the kitman at the time] came to speak to me and said, ‘Mo, this is very, very important, you need to be ready for the atmosphere.’
“To be honest I loved it. I’ve always enjoyed the bigger games more. When you play against big teams, you have the opportunity to show who you really are as a player. Some players can be amazing in the games against small teams, but I think it’s how you perform in the big games that gives you the real story. That’s why I love those games – you get the chance to show you belong at that level.”
It finished 2-2 at White Hart Lane that day, Arsène Wenger’s side grabbing a precious late equaliser after being reduced to 10 men. It was a typical blood and thunder Premier League encounter, so what were Mo’s first impressions of the English fanbase, having played for Basel in the Swiss League for the previous three years?
“For me the fans are very similar around the world. Everyone loves football. Everywhere you go, the fans are passionate about football. Especially those who go to the stadiums, they are crazy about football. But I’ve played in the Premier League for six years now, so maybe I’ve forgotten what it’s like elsewhere! But I love the Premier League for the competitive games as much as the atmosphere.
“I love this league. Every game is competitive, and you never know who is going to win any game. That’s one of the best things in the Premier League. Every team is so strong so you just never know. Maybe fans don’t realise that as much over here, but I can tell you that not every league is a strong as this.”
Mo is speaking from experience. As well as three years in Switzerland, he had a year on loan at Besiktas in Turkey in 2019/20, but his formative footballing years were spent in Egypt. First for Al Ahly at youth level, then with Al Mokawloon.
Born in the northern Egyptian city of Al Mahalla, it was there that a young Mo Elneny had his first taste of live football when future club and local top-flight side Al Ahly paid a visit.
“I remember my home town were playing against the big local side, Al Ahly – that was my first game, I think. In Mahalla it’s so tough for any team to go and play there. They are famous for it. It’s because of the fans, the way the fans are so close to the pitch, and also the pitch isn’t easy to play on! So every team knows that, and it’s really hard to go and get a win there. But I remember being there when I was still very young.”
A few years later – after Mo had joined and then left Al Ahly as a teenager – the club was involved in one of the darkest days ever in Egyptian sport. They travelled to the Port Said Stadium, home of Masry, for a big Egyptian Premier League clash on February 1, 2012. What ensued though was a large-scale riot in which 74 people were killed, and hundreds more were injured.
Mo recalls, “I was playing in Egypt at that time, not in that game [he had left Al Ahly in 2010 for fellow Cairo side Al Mokawloon], but after that day they cancelled the whole season. It was really, really bad. Lots of people died, so they had no option but to cancel it.
“It was a huge shock to us, 100 per cent. There had always been fights between the fans, especially in that game, but never ever that bad. In fact I think the problem that day – and I don’t know fully because I wasn’t there – but the problem was not just the fighting, but that they decided to close the gates, and it trapped people inside.
“Why did they do that? How? Everyone was stuck inside, they went up to each other and the fighting got worse, and people could not escape. It was a difficult, difficult moment in Egypt. My friends were playing in that game. In Egypt, all the players are friends really, so I knew a lot of them, and they told me how bad it was. It was terrible. Imagine that, you are playing a game, and then 74 people die in the stadium. It was really terrible, and it affected everybody in the country.
“I knew players who couldn’t leave home for a while afterwards. They stayed inside crying, and it was really, really tough for them."
The consequences were huge. As a result of the disaster, civil unrest continued until the middle of the month, and the rest of the season was cancelled officially in March. The country itself was already going through a period of major political unrest at the time and many believe the stadium riot was linked to political activism. The following season was also abandoned after the political rebellion of June 2013. Al Ahly had won the league in seven successive seasons before the two cancelled campaigns, but by the time football resumed in earnest for the 2013/14 season, Mo was already playing in Europe, in midfield for Basel in Switzerland.
“I was lucky, I went to Switzerland in January 2013. They stopped the league in the middle of 2011, then we started again briefly in 2012, but then I went to Basel. But since that day we have not had fans back in the stadium in Egypt. No fans at all at the games. Only for the national team. When I go to play for Egypt it was in front of 2,000, or 5,000 maybe, but in the national league, there are no fans. I think they ended it recently, but then the pandemic came so I think still there are no fans at the games.”
So while the rest of the world has been getting used to playing in empty stadiums over the past 18 months or so, the fans and players in the Egyptian league have known largely nothing but behind-closed-doors games for nearly 10 years.
Mo is relieved that the fans have returned to the English game after the highly unusual atmosphere at games last season, although as somebody who has seen stadiums closed en masse before – albeit for hugely different reasons – he understood the reasoning.
“For me, and I think all the players are the same, the first thing we thought of was the safety of everyone, so we understood of course the reasons for no fans during the pandemic,” he says. “This was the right decision, we want everyone to be safe. So of course we all accepted it, we knew it was right and it had to be that way, it just made it different.
“Football matches without fans are just like friendly games. Personally I don’t like it, it’s not the same. I think everybody would say that – even watching it on TV, you don’t enjoy it the same way. Fans are a really important part of the game, and when they aren’t there it’s different, just not the same, and not right.
“We’ve had too long without fans now, and I really missed them. For me as a player, even an atmosphere when the opposition fans are against you is better than no atmosphere at all. 100 per cent. The first thing is safety, but as long as it’s safe, then you have to have fans. It makes you play better. First you play for the club, but you also play for the fans. They push you on. They have been at work all week, then when the weekend comes they want to watch their team and enjoy it. We want to make them go home happy – that’s our job.”
And this is coming from a player who has experienced more hostile atmospheres than most. “That’s true, you know, Africa is very different!” he says with a smile. “The football there is really, really different – with the fans, and the weather as well. We play games in really humid conditions, the pitches can be tough and then there’s the atmosphere on top of that.
“Sometimes when I play away games with Egypt it’s not nice at all! Often the team we’re playing against will set the kick-off time, and they will choose the hottest time of the day. They make it as hard as they can for you. The fans do as well, and that’s before you’ve even got into the stadium. In fact it’s for about five kilometres outside the stadium!
“They line down the streets, and when they see the bus coming you hear the boos and the music and the instruments, you know like they do in Africa. You’re on the bus on the way to the stadium and already you feel like you are going to have a tough game.
“I have to say we like it, though. We love a good atmosphere, but it’s the weather. When it’s so hot you can’t even run, we don’t like that. If you play at 8 o’clock, it’s fine, but the opposition always choose 2pm! I swear, they look at their phones, see what day and what time will be hottest, and that’s the day and time they choose for the game. It’s true!”
There’s one particular game for Mo, back in 2013, that sums up how intimidating it can be to play away in African football. With the civil unrest still raging in Egypt, football seemed to give the nation hope ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Russia, and they completed a perfect group stage, winning six out of six to reach the play-offs. All that stood between them and the finals was a two-legged tie with Ghana, and the Pharaohs were justifiably optimistic.
Mo takes up the story: “We had won everywhere, but needed to win the play-off to go through. The first leg was away in Ghana and, I swear, from the first moment you are there, you feel like you cannot win. I’m telling you that’s what we felt, that they were doing magic or something. The stadium was crazy. They might say that the stadium holds 40,000, but there were maybe 100,000 there. In the streets outside, the hotel, the way to the game – everything was difficult.
“The fans are shouting at you, and it’s strange but you feel like something is happening to you – you don’t feel well. It affects you. You don’t feel like you are secure, and it really makes a difference.
“We lost the game 6-1. But play that game with no fans, with the same teams, in a different country, it would never have been 6-1. We won all our group games home and away. But in Africa it’s crazy, I promise you. It’s not that it’s dangerous enough that you feel they can kill you, but the way they act, and the way they shout, it’s tough. But the fans have a good heart – they love football, really, really love it, and they want their country to win of course. I love the African fans so much because they have a big heart, but the football sometimes can be right on the edge.
“At times in the game it can be difficult. There are fights in the stadiums sometimes, fireworks being thrown – it can be a distraction when you are playing in this. It’s the way it is in Africa. You don’t get many families at those games because it’s not always safe.”
When you’ve grown up in that culture, and experienced the worst the opposition fans have to throw at you – sometimes literally – it prepares you for most things in Europe.
“Yes, all the African players are used to those atmospheres," Mo says. "We don’t get scared. It comes from when we are young and we play in the streets. We would play for our area against the boys from the other local towns, so we would always want to win.
“It didn’t matter that we didn’t have teams, it was our friends against the others. We knew that if they won they would speak about it, tell everyone, and we couldn’t have that. So from a young age we get used to it, and we know that every team wants to win, and will do everything to win – shout at you, kick you, everything!
“So when I played in the Premier League for the first time, at Tottenham’s old stadium, I was ready for any atmosphere. Barcelona away – I was ready. My first game in the Premier League squad? Manchester United. When you have played in Africa, it’s OK – no problem!”
Not cowering to intimidation from rival fans is something that positively motivates Mo in big away games, but as we welcomed a full house at the Emirates for a Saturday 3pm kick-off last weekend for the first time since March 2020, he says that nothing compares to the love you get from your own supporters.
“To have that home support from the fans is an amazing feeling, in the stadium or even out in the street when you have people come to you. In fact yesterday I met a fan when I was out. It was my friend’s birthday, he works in a shop, so I went along to surprise him, and when I was there a fan came up to me and said really nice things – it makes you happy to hear that, and you want to give your best for them.”
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