Cairo – the nation’s stadium
Name: Cairo International Stadium
Address: Al-Istad Al-Bahari Street, Salah Salem, Nasr City, Egypt
Last renovation: 2006
No. of seats: 72,000
Total capacity: 74,100
Home teams: National teams, Al Ahly and Zamalek
Cairo – the nation’s stadium
In July 1960, Egyptians were happier than ever, not because they were celebrating eight years since the 23 July Revolution but because they finally had a real stadium of their own in the capital, Cairo. On 24 July, Egypt’s head of state, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and the Sudanese president, Ibrahim Abboud, inaugurated the biggest stadium in Africa and the Middle East in front of more than 100,000 spectators.
Then, and until 2006 when the stadium was renovated, it held up to 120,000 spectators. That was because only the VIP and first-class sections had seats and the rest of the stadium was made of cement stands only. The nation marveled at the stadium’s facilities, which included an Arabic-English scoreboard – the first in the world – and four lighting towers that consumed as much electricity as is used in a provincial city.
In the 1960s, the stadium was called Nasser Stadium after President Nasser. Building a huge stadium and offering a valuable gift to the public was part of a plan envisioned by the July Revolution leaders, who sought to play a pioneering role in the region. The government hired world-famous German architect Werner March, who was renowned for top-class sports facilities, to design what was expected to be the region’s most fabulous sports arena. Modeled on the Berlin Olympic Stadium, two million square metres were allocated to the stadium in the then new Nasr City. It took the German architect almost three years to build the stadium at a cost of almost 3 million Egyptian pounds, a huge amount by 1960s standards.
And because the stadium was built by the government, it has remained its property as well. It is home to the national team and the two biggest powerhouses in Egypt, Al Ahly and Zamalek. Before the 1960s, the Egyptian arch-rivals used to play at their own 15,000-capacity stadium, but as their popularity increased, the venue became their home and there is always a full house for derbies.
For decades, the stadium won the admiration of visiting teams and their supporters. In many a game, the hugeness of the stands played a decisive part in shaking the visiting team’s confidence, leading to defeat. People can still remember key dates like the African Champions’ Cup final in January 1970 between Egypt’s Ismaili and TP Engelbert of Zaire, which Ismaili eventually won – the first Egyptian side to achieve this honor. More than 120,000 Egyptians – let alone the 40,000 who could not enter – packed the stadium to support the coastal team, which had been forced to leave their city because of the Israeli occupation. The unprecedented number of roaring fans caused the hearts of the visiting team, who were the reigning African champions, to sink into their boots.
A social fabric
In 1971 President Nasser died and years later, the name of the stadium was changed to Cairo International Stadium. Since then, the venue has hosted several tournaments, such as the African Cup of Nations in 1986 and 2006 and the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1997.
In later years, the stadium began to draw criticism from the public, media and some visiting teams. It was the third millennium now, and everyone enjoyed watching dazzling stadiums in other countries during recent World Cup competitions. Complaints included the pitch, the shabby concrete benches in the second- and third- class stands. Furthermore, as third- and fourth-generation stadiums began to take shape, and as most of the world’s state-of-the-art football stadiums made the switch to all-seater venues, along with modern, clean and safety conscious facilities, the need for a drastic revamp became more pressing.
Renovations started in 2004 and over a two-year period, new grass was planted and a state-of-the-art electricity system installed. The concrete seating was replaced with 74,500 plastic seats in all the stands. Two huge electronic scoreboards were installed to display footage and results of other games being played at the same time. VIP tribunes and 5-star lounges and terraces as well as fully equipped media centers and conference rooms to occupy to 300 media representatives were also built. New electronic gates replaced the old entry and exit gates and a new ticketing system was adopted to facilitate the process. Monitoring cameras connected to a control room were implemented to spot troublemakers and guide security to them. The revamp cost 150 million Egyptian pounds.
Nowadays, the Cairo stadium is a huge sports village with three secondary training pitches, a four-arena indoor complex, an open complex for team sports, squash and tennis courts, an Olympic swimming complex, a hockey stadium, a cycling track and an equestrian track. Cairo International Stadium is no longer just a venue for football: for years it has been hosting July Revolution celebrations, collective weddings, music and theater productions, conferences, sports festivals and peaceful demonstrations. The stadium has become an integral part of the nation’s social fabric.