NEW: Presidential spokesman promises investigation of police who beat protester
Saturday's matches are the first since last year's deadly football riot
74 people were killed after a Port Said team beat a Cairo team in 2012
A judged sentenced 21 Port Said residents to death for their roles in the riot
In a country obsessed with its premier sport, Egypt’s football season kicks off Saturday to heavy anticipation – but without any fans in the stands.
Instead of the roars of raucous crowds, players take the pitch to the relative silence of secure military stadiums.
Saturday’s matches are the first since a gruesome riot at a football match last year that left 74 dead and 1,000 injured.
Dubbed the “massacre at Port Said,” the riot in February 2012 broke out after Port Said-based Al-Masry defeated Cairo’s Al-Ahly, 3-1.
Fans from both sides bashed one another with rocks and chairs, and many of those who died fell from the bleachers while others suffocated.
While the football rivalries between the cities have been a mainstay, recent political upheaval has only fueled the fire.
Last week, a judge issued death sentences for 21 Port Said residents for their roles in the riot.
Those verdicts incensed Port Said residents who blame security officials – not fans – for the mass tragedy.
Decades of strife
The history of tense relations between Port Said and Cairo date about 60 years, as residents of Port Said have felt betrayed by Egyptian security forces during a series of wars with Israel.
Thousands of residents were displaced several times because of the Suez War, the Six-Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition with Israel, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
Residents of Port Said, in the northeastern corner of the country, believed security forces did not adequately defend their city.
In addition, some say Cairo has not invested enough in Port Said’s infrastructure, and that their city doesn’t reap enough tax benefits from trade with international ships that pass though Port Said via the critical Suez Canal.
Some also contend that Port Said is still getting the cold shoulder from Cairo after a 1999 assassination attempt of then-President Hosni Mubarak, who was visiting the city.
Molotov cocktails and fire at the presidential palace
The new football season also kicks off amid new turmoil embroiling the country.
The latest spate of violence started during demonstrations last week to mark the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Protesters angry with the slow pace of change and with President Mohamed Morsy’s actions clashed with Morsy supporters and police in the cities such as Suez and Ismailia.
Those clashes, combined with furor over Port Said death sentences, led to scores of deaths.
The chaos snowballed through Friday, when a fire broke out at the entrance of the presidential palace as protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at security forces.
Authorities responded with tear gas and water cannon, and Egyptian TV aired live footage of security forces beating a naked man on the ground.
A presidential spokesman on Saturday deplored the video of the man being beaten, calling it “shocking.”
The government assures “that what happened was an individual behaviot and does not represent the ideology of the police force,” spokesman Yasser Ali said. He promised an investigation into the incident.
The protests are the latest in the seesaw struggle between Egypt’s first democratically elected president and dissidents who say his leadership is a throwback to past dictatorships, particularly the reign of Mubarak, who was toppled two years ago in the popular revolt.
More than just a game
In Egypt, football isn’t just a sport. It’s an escape from the economic, political and social tumult wracking the country.
The only times traffic virtually disappears from Cairo streets are when residents break their daily fasts during Ramadan and when the city’s two main teams – Al-Ahly and Zamalek – take the field.
Saturday’s matches feature both those Cairo teams – Al-Alhy against Ghazl El-Mehalla and Zamalek against Al-Ittihad Al-Sakndary.
But while football has both unified and polarized parts of the country, fans now must cheer or lament from afar.
CNN’s Ben Wedeman, Reza Sayah and Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.