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.


Milan, Inter look to bounce back in last-eight derby cup

Milan, Inter look to bounce back in last-eight derby cup
Updated 26 January 2021

Milan, Inter look to bounce back in last-eight derby cup

Milan, Inter look to bounce back in last-eight derby cup
  • Ibrahimovic returned for Milan this month after seven weeks out injured, scoring a brace against Cagliari

MILAN: Milan’s giants will do battle in the Italian Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday after a disappointing weekend of Serie A action for Italy’s top two teams.

League leaders AC Milan were swept away 3-0 by Atalanta at the San Siro on Saturday, at the same time as second-placed Inter Milan could only manage a goalless draw at Udinese which leaves them two points behind their city rivals.

The teams’ star strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku, who have each bagged 12 goals this league campaign, both drew a blank at the weekend but will be hoping for more from the second meeting this season between the two teams.

Milan’s veteran forward Ibrahimovic scored a brace the last time they met in a 2-1 league win in October, with Lukaku also netting for Inter.

Ibrahimovic returned for Milan this month after seven weeks out injured, scoring a brace against Cagliari, and is looking for his first Cup goal of the season.

Lukaku headed in an extra-time winner against Fiorentina in the last 16, but the Belgium forward has failed to score in Inter’s last four league games.

Their trophy hopes now lie on domestic success after their early European exit.

“Winning the Scudetto and qualifying for the Champions League would be significant for Inter, but the Italian Cup is a trophy that we respect,” said coach Antonio Conte.

“We won’t be taking it lightly and will try to win, as we always do.”

Inter’s last major trophy was the 2011 Italian Cup, while Milan — who last won the league that same year — have not tasted success in the competition since 2003.

Making it through to the last four by beating such strong opposition on Tuesday would be huge after their limp defeat by Atalanta.

“The Italian Cup derby could bring us to the semifinals but above all it’s an opportunity to immediately turn the page and avoid a difficult emotional crisis,” said Milan coach Stefano Pioli.

Holders Napoli are also looking for a lift Thursday as they take on Serie A newcomers Spezia, who dumped Roma out of the tournament last week.

Gennaro Gattuso’s side lost the Italian Super Cup to Juventus last week and fell 3-1 at Hellas Verona in Serie A on Sunday.

Juventus, winners of four of the last six Italian Cups, take on the only Serie B side remaining, SPAL.

Atalanta — whose only major trophy was the Italian Cup in 1963 — host Lazio, winners in 2019, with the two sides set for a return trip again next weekend in the league.

Winners go through to a two-legged semifinal on February 3 and 10, with the final on May 19.