Egyptian Premier League set for late summer restart amid coronavirus pandemic

Egyptian football is all too familiar with empty stands after a blanket ban on fans attending. (File/AFP)
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Updated 05 July 2020

Egyptian Premier League set for late summer restart amid coronavirus pandemic

  • Al Ahly remain on course for yet another championship when matches resume
  • One aspect in which the Egyptian League will be familiar with would be the hosting of matches behind closed doors

DUBAI: The start of August will see the Egyptian Premier League become the latest football competition to resume the 2019-20 season after the interruption brought about by the spread of the Covid-19.

The league had been suspended since March 14, 2020 as fears of pandemic brought almost all sporting competitions around the world to a halt. Days earlier, it had been announced that the league would carry on behind closed doors, but that decision was quickly amended to suspend all matches indefinitely as the gravity of coronavirus spread became apparent.

But now football fans in Egypt can at last have something to look forward to, albeit through their television screens.

On Thursday, director of the Egyptian Football Association’s Competitions Committee Hossam El Zanaty announced that the season will now be completed over two periods, the first from Aug. 7 until the end of the month, and then from the start of September until completion of the season.

Unlike the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League, which was voided, but like the Saudi Professional League which restarts on Aug. 4, the Egyptian League will now provide a title-winning team, qualifiers to the continent’s Champions League, and relegation and promotion resolutions.

The timing of the return inevitably means there will be a knock-on effect on the start of the 2020-21 season. Egypt’s football calendar, like most nations, runs from August to May, and this announcement means that the forthcoming campaign will now be completed deep into the summer.

There is also the matter of playing out the remainder of the Egypt Cup competition, currently at the round of 16 stage, and any potential continental (CAF) competitions.

One thing that would have made the decision to restart in August easier is the recent announcement that the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, scheduled for a January 2020 start, and running for a month, has now been postponed until the following year. With that particular disruption to the African domestic leagues - not to mention to many Asian and European teams with Egyptian players - no longer a factor, individual country associations will have more leeway to find the best solutions to complete their disrupted campaigns.

But while many league competitions around the world were comfortably over the halfway stage, and as such could be completed by squeezing the postponed matches over a period of several weeks, the Egyptian league was, for the majority of clubs, just 17 match days into a total of 34.

Currently, Al Ahly, who have won the league a record 41 times, lead the Egyptian Premier League table with 49 points from 17 matches, and remain on course for yet another comfortable championship triumph. Al Mokawloon Al Arab (Arab Contractors) in second are a distant second with 33 points from an extra match. Pyramids FC are in third with 32 points, also from 18 matches, while Zamalek, Al Ahly’s historic Cairo rivals, are a point behind in fourth (from only 16 matches played).

One aspect in which the Egyptian League will be familiar with would be the hosting of matches behind closed doors over the last eight years, though under vastly different circumstances.

Following the Port Said Stadium disaster in 2012, which saw the death of 72 Al Ahly fans in a riot after a match against Al Masry, a blanket ban on supporters watching league football was implemented by Egypt’s Ministry of Sports.

Three years later, 19 Zamalek fans were tragically killed after clashes with police as they attempted to force their way into a league match against ENPPI.

In 2018, the ban was eased somewhat to allow 5,000 fans to attend league and cup matches, while the public was allowed Egypt’s international matches and any club matches against other African teams.

Now, for health concerns, fans will once again have to bide their time before it is safe enough for them to return to football grounds.

Egypt has been one of the hardest hit African nations by the coronavirus pandemic, with a total of just under 75,000 recorded cases resulting in 3,280 deaths at last count by the World Health Organisation (WHO), while there has been just over 20,000 recoveries.

The return of the Egyptian Premier League will hopefully coincide with a drop in those numbers, and signal a return of some sort social normality to the country, and not just for its football fans.

Time catches up with Ronaldo and Juventus in quest for Champions League

Updated 08 August 2020

Time catches up with Ronaldo and Juventus in quest for Champions League

  • Coming into the Champions League round-of-16 match against Lyon a goal down from the first leg, Juventus were still widely expected to turn the tie around

DUBAI: Never write off Cristiano Ronaldo.

Across a single match, a season or his entire career, doubt him and he will make you regret it. 

On Friday, the 35-year-old almost pulled off his favorite trick once again.

Coming into the Champions League round-of-16 match against Lyon a goal down from the first leg, Juventus were still widely expected to turn the tie around in Turin.

But things didn’t go according to plan, with the French side’s early lead meaning  Juventus needed three goals to progress.

Cue the Cristiano Ronaldo show. After all, this was the Champions League, a competition that at times over the last decade seemed to exist solely for his benefit.

He has played in 18 of its 27 seasons, scored a record 130 goals — 67 in the knockout stages — and is the only man to score in three finals. Oh, and won the competition a record five times, once with Manchester United and an astonishing four times in five years with Real Madrid. There are many other minor records.

If you can remember Europe’s top competition without Ronaldo, chances are you are approaching your 30s, and can recall a world without smartphones and social media, and one in which his current club coach, Zinedine Zidane, reigned as the world’s best footballer.

It is the near certainty of success Ronaldo brings that convinced Juventus to buy him in the summer of 2018. Winning Serie A again was practically a given, but it was the Champions League that chairman Andrea Agnelli craved most, having failed to win the competition since beating Ajax on penalties in 1996.

After two seasons of trying, it’s fair to say that project has failed. On Friday night, time seemed to have caught up with player and club.

Except it was not the Portuguese legend who had let Juventus down. It was the other way round.

In an absorbing match shaped by two questionable penalty decisions, and even without hitting the heights of his greatest years, Ronaldo remained his team’s greatest hope. He won and scored a penalty, missed two headers, set up several chances for his teammates and scored a quite extraordinary goal to bring the Italian champions to within one goal of progressing to the quarterfinals

There was a sense of inevitability about proceedings. We have seen Ronaldo do this time and again during his career. Especially with Real Madrid. 

And what could be more Ronaldo than scoring yet another hat-trick to rescue a seemingly impossible situation yet again?

Even in his short time with the Old Lady, he had shown his unique ability to deliver in the biggest of games. Last season, most people had written off Juventus after a 2-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, only for Ronaldo to score a hat-trick in the return at the Allianz Stadium.

Unlike previous years at Madrid, however, this escape did not inspire a glorious march to the Champions League title. In what was thought to be the easier half of the draw at the time, Juventus went on to lose to Ajax in the quarterfinal.

This season, they did not even make that far, depriving Ronaldo of the chance to play out the rest of the competition in his native Portugal. It is a failure that might now see coach Maurizio Sarri lose his job after only one season.

More worrying for Juventus supporters is that this great era, which has seen nine consecutive Serie A titles, seems to be coming to an end. 

Since the restart of a season after the coronavirus break, Juve have been poor. Luckily for Sarri’s team, challenges by Inter Milan and Lazio could not be maintained, otherwise the Turin club’s two wins from eight matches could have resulted in a truly disastrous season.

Juventus have looked a shadow of the team that has dominated Italy over the last decade and reached the Champions League final twice, losing to Leo Messi’s Barcelona in 2015 and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in 2017.

Throughout this inconsistent season, Ronaldo has been Juventus’ standout player by some distance.

Paulo Dybala has continued to suffer from injuries. The fabled defensive partnership of 35-year-old Giorgio Chiellini and 33-year-old Leonardo Bonucci is slowly being ravaged by the passage of time. And new signing Adrien Rabiot barely contributed until the closing weeks of the season. Ronaldo, on the other hand, has scored 37 goals in all competitions, breaking a Juventus record held by Ferenc Hirzer for 94 years. 

How Juventus, specifically Agnelli, react to the latest Champions League disappointment could determine whether Sarri, this squad and Ronaldo have one more shot at the biggest competition of all next season. The odds are against it.

At 35 Ronaldo looks to have lost little of his hunger and genius to step up just when he is needed. But time is running out quickly, and the chances of another Champions League triumph look much slimmer today than they did on Friday morning.

That evening, Ronaldo, as ever, did his bit. Juventus didn’t.