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Soccer star Hassan: Egypt is in a 'dark tunnel'

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed April 11, 2012
Ahmed Hassan displays a shirt with the message "You will remain in our hearts and we will never forget you" in reference to victims of the Port Said tragedy. His former club Al-Ahly had played in the match against Al-Masry where fans rioted.
Ahmed Hassan displays a shirt with the message "You will remain in our hearts and we will never forget you" in reference to victims of the Port Said tragedy. His former club Al-Ahly had played in the match against Al-Masry where fans rioted.
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A message of peace
From pitch to protester
African honor
World record
A golden career
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most-capped player in history, Ahmed Hassan, says Egypt is suffering from a lack of ethics
  • Former Egypt captain blames "over-confidence" for team's failure to qualify for 2012 ACN
  • He was deeply moved by the fatal football riots in Port Said on February 1
  • Hassan says the activities of "ultras" can cause problems in the stadiums

(CNN) -- On February 1, deadly riots at a football match in Port Said plunged Egypt into mourning and despair. The national league was canceled and the future of one of African soccer's traditional powerhouses seemed bleak.

However, a tiny bit of that gloom lifted just weeks later when Ahmed Hassan made history by making his 179th international appearance -- a new world record that gave a glimmer of hope in a time of turmoil.

But, as he prepares to continue the Pharaohs' rebuilding phase, Hassan says that Egypt -- a country where sport and politics are inextricably linked -- faces a long road to recovery before it can resolve its problems and move out of a "dark tunnel."

"The whole country is suffering from a lack of ethics, as well as a general lack of security, and this is causing problems in all facets of life," the 36-year-old told the official website of world football's governing body FIFA.

Inside Port Said stadium
Mood 'somber' following soccer riot

"There is no doubt that football will bounce back but the whole country has to make it out of this dark tunnel. Stability will only return when all members of the community, whether they be players, fans, referees, journalists or security staff, recognize their role, stick to it and respect the role of others."

American is coach, protester in Egypt

Hassan's landmark appearance came on February 27 in a friendly against Kenya in Qatar. The Egypt team has not been able to play at home since the riots, which killed 74 people after a game between top-tier clubs Al-Masry and Al-Ahly. More lives were lost as fighting spread across the country.

Hassan, who has returned to the national squad for Thursday's friendly against Nigeria in Dubai, was deeply moved by the tragedy.

An outspoken figure against football hooliganism, Hassan took to the streets the following day in protest against the clashes.

"It's depressing to see the sport that everybody loves become a source of such sadness but, ultimately, what happened was a result of fanaticism," he said.

"I have to say that the media also played a large role by stirring up the fans' aggression instead of attempting to calm things down."

Hassan captained Egypt to Africa Cup of Nations titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010 -- his fourth overall.

The whole country is suffering from a lack of ethics, as well as a general lack of security
Ahmed Hassan

But the Pharaohs' form has plummeted in recent years, failing to qualify for the 2012 edition of the tournament.

Hassan said the Arab uprising last year, which saw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak overthrown in a wave of protest, was a factor in the team's fall in fortunes.

"We're all part of this country and anything that goes on affects us, so naturally our concentration levels drop and we cannot remain focused when such turmoil is happening at home. On top of that there's the fact that we couldn't play for a very long time with the league being suspended for almost four months," he said.

Hassan said Egypt had taken for granted its ability to qualify.

"After being on top for all those years, we simply underestimated our opponents, but we have learned our lesson well and we have learned it the hard way."

Hassan carved a successful football career in Europe for 10 years, before returning in 2008 to play for Al-Ahly and, now, that club's fiercest rival Zamalek.

Both teams, like Al-Masry, are supported by militant fan groups known as "ultras."

"It is a great thing if they stick to supporting their teams within the reasonable and ethical limits, but once it crosses the line and turns aggressive or becomes a vehicle for something completely beyond football then it becomes unacceptable and can lead to disasters," Hassan said.

"All over the world, ultras support their clubs using organized cheering which can be very entertaining, and this is what we as players like to see in the stands, but if they cause violence in the stadiums then no, we cannot tolerate that."

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