Life in Egypt comes to a stop as Al Ahly and Zamalek clash in historic CAF Champions League final

Life in Egypt comes to a stop as Al Ahly and Zamalek clash in historic CAF Champions League final
The African Champions League final is - for the first time - the Cairo derby between Ahly and Zamalek. (File/AFP)
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Updated 26 November 2020

Life in Egypt comes to a stop as Al Ahly and Zamalek clash in historic CAF Champions League final

Life in Egypt comes to a stop as Al Ahly and Zamalek clash in historic CAF Champions League final
  • Fans from both sides of the fierce rivalry reveal what the Cairo derby means to them
  • Families follow team loyalty over everything else

DUBAI: The world’s wildest derbies, like Boca Juniors v River Plate or Casablanca’s Wydad v Raja, are often played out as much in the stands as they are on the pitch. If not more.

Historically, the Cairo derby, too, has pitted neighborhoods, families and friends against each other, and today it continues to split loyalties in football-mad Egypt. There is no room for neutrality or civility when Al Ahly take on El Zamalek.

And certainly not when they cash in the CAF Champions League final for the first time ever on Friday.

The stakes for the supporters couldn’t be higher. Ahly with eight titles, Zamalek with five, the most by any two teams in Africa.

Sadly, two of the world’s most passionate and boisterous supporter groups will be absent from Cairo International Stadium on Friday night. But even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for safety reasons, this was nothing new for this fixture, or indeed the majority of football matches in Egypt over the last decade.

“To be honest, for years and years we’ve been playing football without fans in Egypt so unfortunately people got used to it,” said die-hard Ahly supporter Mohammed Moharram. “But once the game is finished you will see the fans go to the streets to celebrate with their colors no matter what is happening in the world, they will celebrate in front of their clubs and all over Egypt.”

Moharram is a football journalist by trade, and it is an indication of the fierceness of the rivalry that he draws the line at covering the Cairo derby or Egyptian domestic football.

“Since I started my career as a journalist, it was always a challenge to talk or write about Zamalek,” he said. “I don't think I could ever be fair because before anything I am Ahlawy and forever will be Ahlawy more than a journalist. So I just stopped writing or talking about Egyptian football as a journalist.”

FASTFACT

 

Rival fans reveal what Cairo derby means to them, their hopes, fears ahead of Friday night’s big match.

Noura Rahif was born into a Zamalek-supporting family, one in which civil war and defections to the enemy have often taken place. As a child she was not allowed to watch Zamalek live, but was dragged to several Ahly matches by her cousins. By the time she was old enough to visit stadiums on her own, Egypt had banned supporters from attending.

“My great-grandmother was a Zamalek fan, and we’re a family of over four generations of Zamalek fans, so it runs in my blood,” she said. “My mother raised me and my brother as Zamalek fans and all my cousins were Zamalek fans as well up until that dreadful 6-1 loss (in 2001-02) when they all converted to being Ahly fans. Even my brother did, but don’t tell my mom or he’ll be disowned.” 

Such crossing of the lines, albeit at very young age, is barely tolerated, and for the sake of civility, Noura’s Zamalek supporting mother and Ahly-supporting aunt banned all talk of football at family gatherings over the last 15 years.

 “I wish I was kidding. I remember my grandmother used to take the train to Alexandria and back to Cairo during the Ahly and Zamalek matches because she would be too anxious to watch,” she said. “I play football as well and 90 percent of my teammates are Ahly fans, and in practice yesterday they were so sure they’re winning on Friday. I know better, so I stayed quiet. If they win, then I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself and if we win, I’ll say my silence was me being so sure we’d win.”

Noura believes that the Cairo derby is like no other in the world. Not the Classico, not the Derby della Madonnina, not the Merseyside or Manchester derbies.

“The Ahly and Zamalek rivalry is not like any other I’ve seen,” she said. “When Ahly and Zamalek play, 100 million Egyptians are split 50/50, because in Egypt you support one or the other. No offense to any of the other teams of course, but even most Alexandrians and Port Saidis, who are known to have strong teams, still really only care for the Ahly and Zamalek match. So you can be a Semouha fan but you’re also a Zamalek fan.”

To avoid clashes between fans, the Egyptian Ministry of National Security even considered a lockdown on Friday, a measure they didn’t even opt for with a global pandemic.

Life in Egypt bends to the gravity of the Cairo derby. 

“I once had an official match in the league and there was an Ahly and Zamalek match playing right about the same time as the second half,” Noura said. “So the match officials and coaches agreed to only play 60 minutes instead of the 90 minutes so we can go watch the match. It’s that big.” 

Amid the avoidable historical and cultural context of the match it is almost easy to overlook the tactical and technical aspects of the football itself.

“Honestly, Zamalek has built a great team over the past two years, and they built a very inspiring youth team as well,” said Noura. “This is the best Zamalek team I’ve seen in the last decade.” 

“Mostafa Mohamed has been phenomenal, especially for his young age. Tarek Hamed is the James Milner of Zamalek, he’s not young but he runs around the field for 90 minutes like he’s 19-years-old, a true fighter. Zizo (Ahmed Sayed) has had a great season so he’s definitely going to be important. Ferjani (Sassi) is a vital player as well.”

Moharram agrees that Zamalek danger men will be Mohamed and the Tunisian Sassi, as well as the brilliant Moroccan winger Achraf Bincharki. As for his own team, he singles out Aly Malool, Magdi Qafsha, Amr Al Solaya and Hussien Al Shahat s Al Ahly’s key men.

Both Noura Rahif and Mohammed Moharram are too seasoned in derby matters to tempt fate.

“I cannot tell you my prediction because I’m afraid I’d jinx it,” Noura said. “But even if it goes to penalties, we have the best two goalkeepers in Africa so it would be nice, but desperately nerve wracking, to watch.”

Moharram takes it even further.

“Well, I am superstitious so I am going to watch the game with my friends Hesham and Gabi, at Hesham's, the same place we watched the Widad game [semi-final] which Al Ahly won,” he said. “And to be more specific we are going to wear the same clothes and sit in the same places just like the last game.”

Form points in one direction. Domestically Al Ahly have had the better of the derby in recent years and have won an astonishing 13 of their record 42 league titles in the last 16 years. Zamalek are stuck on 12 titles. Al Ahly last won the CAF Champions League in 2015 while Zamalek’s last triumph was in 2002.

On the other hand, when the 2019-20 Egyptian Super Cup was hosted at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi last February, in front of over 33,000 hysterical supporters split between red and white, it was Zamalek who edged the penalty shootout 4-3 after a goalless draw.

But as the cliche goes, form counts for little in the derby.

“The derby is the derby, no matter which team is better,” Moharram added. “It's always tense and you are always nervous before the game. For me, this game is the real deal. If you win you will show off and brag about it forever, if you lose nobody from the other side will let you forget that you lost the Champions League final.”

For the sake of their fans, it’s a match neither team dare lose.


Saudi showjumpers ride high at Jeddah event

Saudi showjumpers ride high at Jeddah event
With SR130,000 ($34,600) in cash prizes, the three-day competition, held without spectators due to the coronavirus restrictions, has been organized by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation (SAEF) in partnership with the Ministry of National Guard and the Diriyah Gate Development Authority. (AN photos by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 27 min 31 sec ago

Saudi showjumpers ride high at Jeddah event

Saudi showjumpers ride high at Jeddah event
  • Elite riders saddle up for $34,600 National Guard Ministry cup at Jeddah Trio Ranch

JEDDAH: The Saudi National Guard Ministry’s showjumping cup competition kicked off on Thursday at the Jeddah Trio Ranch, with Abdullah Al-Sharbatly and Dalma Malhas leading a top-class equestrian lineup.

With SR130,000 ($34,600) in cash prizes, the three-day competition, held without spectators due to the coronavirus restrictions, has been organized by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation (SAEF) in partnership with the Ministry of National Guard and the Diriyah Gate Development Authority.
The competition consists of nine rounds, with three rounds each day. About 130 horses were registered in the competition. The fences were set at 1.15m for the small grade where about 80 riders competed on the first day.
Almost 40 equestrians took part in the 1.20m-1.25m medium grade. Another 20 competitors battled in the 1.30m-1.35m grade on the first day of competition.
“We have seven competitions under the names of seven ministries. After good international and Olympic results, support has doubled for equestrian sports, particularly showjumping,” a member of the SAEF technical committee, Ali Al-Sahli, told Arab News.
One rider, Naif Al-Sudairi, said that equestrianism in Saudi Arabia is making rapid advances on many levels.
“With Saudi Vision 2030, we now have more tournaments in all regions of the country, and the competition has heated up,” he told Arab News. “This can motivate the riders to improve and show our best in the run-up to international competitions.”
He added that he is looking forward to representing Saudi Arabia in the global equestrian events.

First day
In the small round on the first day of the competition, Khaled Al-Hady came first with 20 points. His horse, Doberlina Van de Kapel, came second with 18 points. Mohammed Hassan Al-Hadi was ranked third with 16 points, while Princess Al-Anoud Al-Saud secured fourth place with 14 points, and Waleed Al-Ghamdi was fifth with 12 points. Faisal Al-Ouda and Abdul Aziz Al-Hamazani came sixth and seventh, respectively.
In the medium class, Mohammed Al-Malki topped the ranking with 30 points followed by Khalid Al-Mobty, who collected 28 points. Badr Al-Fard came third with 26 points, and Abdullah Al-Sheikh was fourth with 24 points. Ahmed Bakarman came fifth with 22 points.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The competition consists of nine rounds, with three rounds each day.

• The fences were set at 1.15m for the small grade where about 80 riders competed on the first day.

• Almost 40 equestrians took part in the 1.20m-1.25m medium grade.

• Another 20 competitors battled in the 1.30m-1.35m grade on the first day of competition.

Malhas, who secured an individual bronze at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, after completing the round in 38 seconds without a single penalty, came ninth with 14 points. She is also the first Saudi female equestrian to take part in the individual hurdles at the 2018 World Equestrian Championship held in the US city of Tryon.


In the big round, Al-Sharbatly, who won the individual silver medal at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games, came first with 40 points, followed by Abed Sanosy with 38 points. Fahad Al-Ghamdi was third with 36 points, while Badr Al-Fard was fourth with 34 points, and Talal Al-Juaid came fifth with 32 points. Sultan Al-Qarza’e and Khaled Al-Mobty came sixth and seventh, respectively.

Riders’ journey
Muneer Al-Ayoubi, who has been riding for over 20 years, told Arab News that showjumping requires understanding between rider and horse.
“I have been participating in showjumping (activities) for more than two years. It is the most difficult type of horse-riding activities,” he said. “Unlike horse racing and endurance riding, contestants have to keep training their horses. The rider and the horse should appear as if they were one soul.”
Arwa Mutabagani, owner and managing director of Jeddah Trio Ranch, said that they have riders of different levels from all over Saudi Arabia.
Speaking about the preparation to host the competition, Mutabagani said: “The horses arrive a couple of days before the competition, so we have to be ready. On-site, we have 150 horses participating, so we have different locations to host all these numbers. We made the warm-up arena ready for the riders to prepare their horses for the show.”
An Italian equestrian expert was brought in to handle the timing and ensure there are no complaints, she said. Mutabagani said that she is training a number of female riders to become champions. Family support is essential in this type of sport, she added.
“To reach a top position, dedication, family and team support, and sacrifices are all elements that should go together. You also have to have a good instructor, a good horse, and you have to have the right competition that can help you move to higher levels,” she said.
She mentioned her daughter, Dalma Malhas, as an example, saying: “When she was competing, she was young and spent weekends at the shows and not with her peers. So, you have to sacrifice being a normal teenager to reach the top.”
Meanwhile, Mohrah Faisal, a female equestrian who took part in the small round, said that she is grateful to SAEF for supporting female riders. “We did not have such an opportunity in the past. Now I hope I can represent the Kingdom at the Olympics.”
She said that her family believed in her passion for equestrianism once they saw her succeeding in many local competitions.
Wafa Hasson, another Saudi female rider, said she competed in the UAE two years ago after SAEF gave women riders the green light, which helped them improve.
Female riders are still looking for opportunities to learn. “I want to go as far as I can. I don’t really have a limit, I just want to see what I can achieve and I will do my best to achieve it.”
Ghalia Al-Musa, another participant, said that she has been riding for 13 years, and her mother is still her biggest supporter.
“SAEF allowed female riders to compete along with male riders in 2019, and it was good news for all female riders. In the same year, SAEF selected the best female riders to represent Saudi Arabia in the Arab Women Sports Tournament in Sharjah, UAE. We came second as a team and I came fourth as an individual,” she told Arab News.
Al-Musa also hopes to represent Saudi Arabia in international events, including the Olympics.
Heavy rain in Jeddah on Friday forced the organizing committee of the National Guard showjumping cup to combine the second and third day of competition on Saturday (10 a.m. to 11 p.m.) when the competition will come  to an end.