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.”
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.