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Ready to rumble
Published in Ahram Online on 24 - 11 - 2020

You would have thought that the two best football teams in Africa's history would have met before in the final of the continent's most famous club championship. It never happened. But that's about to change.
Ahly and Zamalek, both from Egypt, are set to lock horns tomorrow, Friday 17 November, in a titanic clash as they battle for Africa's crown jewel, the Champions League.
It is a match for the ages. Ahly will be vying for their record-extending ninth title while Zamalek hope to add trophy No 6 – the second most in Africa -- to their collection.
However, the two have not tasted victory at this tournament for what to them is an eternity. Ahly's last Champions League win was in 2013, light years away for the squad officially dubbed The African Club of the Century. One has to go way further back, to 2002, when Zamalek last lifted the cup.
That the two clubs are first and second in Africa makes the encounter scintillating. That they come from the same country and city – Cairo -- and are hoping to snap their winless Champions League streak makes it epic. That they are sworn enemies meeting for the first time in the endgame of Africa's most prestigious club football event makes it cataclysmic.
The game is huge all across the Middle East and North Africa. Live broadcasts watched by tens of millions in those regions are considered the highlight of the football season and a staple since the 1970s.
The rivalry is fierce. The objective is not just to win but to humiliate. Embarrass him. Knock the living daylights out of him because winning isn't as sweet if you don't break the enemy in two.
At home, the two enjoy almost total domination. Between them, Zamalek and Ahly have won the domestic league title 51 times, in a league that is 71 years old. The last time a team won the Egyptian league that did not wear the red shirt of Ahly or Zamalek's two horizontal red stripes-on-white ensemble was close to two decades ago.
In trying to forecast who will win Friday's duel, history favours Ahly. They have won 39 domestic titles to Zamalek's 12. In the Egypt Cup, Ahly have bested Zamalek 36-27.
Ahly ousted Zamalek in the semi-finals of the 2005 Champions League, and have beaten Zamalek several more times in the tournament's group stages.
Despite Ahly's clear supremacy, in four Egyptian competition finals in the last five years, Zamalek have trumped Ahly.
And in their last meeting, in August in the Premier League, Zamalek topped Ahly 3-1.
Surprisingly, the two clubs reached the final after both their coaches suddenly quit shortly before the semi-finals. Ahly's Swiss coach Rene Weiler said he could not remain in Egypt when Covid-19 was escalating and he living alone in Cairo while his family was back home.
Frenchman Patrice Carteron abruptly terminated his contract with Zamalek and headed for the more lucrative Saudi football market.
Both coaches left after leading successful campaigns. Weiler managed to guide Ahly to the Egypt Super Cup and the Egyptian Premier League. Carteron helped the White Knights win the African Super Cup and Egyptian Super Cup in February.
Such successes would have made it difficult for any new coaches to pick up where the old coaches left off, especially on such short notice. Their hurried departures could have easily rocked the Ahly and Zamalek boats but instead their replacements have been laudable and the transitions have been seamless.
In their place came Pitso Mosimane and Jaime Pacheco. The hiring of South African Mosimane by Ahly was striking for its boldness. In a club that normally hires European coaches, Mosimane became Ahly's first African manager.
It has turned out to be an Ahly masterstroke of genius. Mosimane has enjoyed a perfect start to life with the Egyptian giants and helped them qualify for the final of the Champions League with a resounding 5-1 win over Morocco's Wydad AC in the two-legged semi-final.
In the return leg in Cairo, the Red Devils so dominated possession against the Botola giants that one phase of play resulted in 41 passes.
It was Mosimane's Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa that trounced Ahly 5-1 last year in the Champions League, the worst defeat ever inflicted on the Egyptians in Africa.
Apparently, after that shellacking, the Ahly motto became “if you can't beat them, hire them”.
Mosimane reportedly goes for man-management. He likes to be close to the players, especially those who do not play often. Since his arrival, each game is treated with utmost respect, with attention to detail in tactical and psychological preparation.
Meantime, Portuguese coach Jaime Pacheco returned to Zamalek for a second stint after having left the club in 2014.
No sooner had Pacheco arrived in Zamalek on 25 September and Mosimane to Ahly on 30 September than their new teams starting playing in the African semi-finals a little over two weeks later. But both managers did not miss a beat. They hit the ground running.
The two slipped smoothly into their new roles as Ahly qualified for the final first, followed by Zamalek which overpowered Raja Casablanca with an aggregate score of 4-1 to set up the first-ever all-Egyptian derby final.
Since this will be the first time the final of the African Champions League will be just one game instead of the usual two-legged home and away fixture, predicting who will win is a risky business. Anything can happen in a one-off affair. A team that scores early could park the bus the rest of the way and that would be that.
However the game progresses, there are players to watch. Zamalek come in with two hot marksmen, Mustafa Mohamed and the Tunisian Youssef Ben Charki.
The club is bolstered by playmaker Zizo who seems to be charged with Eveready batteries.
Ahly will be depending on stalwart goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Shinnawi and a solid defence led by Tunisian Ali Maloul and youngster Mohamed Hani. Midfielder Magdi Afsha is now on the national team
But Covid-19 is helping determine who will and won't play. As of writing, Ahly will be without playmaker Saleh Gomaa and forward Mahmoud “Kahraba” Abdel-Moneim up front after testing positive for Covid-19.
Zamalek's defender lynchpin Mahmoud Hamdi, aka El-Wench, and veteran Ahly midfielder Walid Suleiman, 35, who can change a game outright when making a second half substitute appearance, are also out with the virus.
The game also features the completely polar opposite club presidents: Zamalek's fiery combatant Mortada Mansour and the soft-spoken former iconic player Mahmoud Al-Khatib. Al-Khatib has taken his disputes with Mansour to the courts, on charges of defamation. A derby win for either will serve as tremendous pay-back.
There is no love lost between these avowed adversarial clubs. And that antagonism transcends to their fans who are diehard loyalists. These derbies have had their fair share of violence in the stands and on the streets. In 1972, a crowd riot forced the suspension of the entire season. In the obsession for victory, supporters on both sides have killed and been killed.
The volatility of the matches has, for many years, forced the intervention of foreign referees, usually from Europe, who are flown in to officiate the derby to ensure the kind of impartiality that fans on both sides firmly believe they won't get from an Egyptian adjudicator.
To be sure, quite a few of these Egyptian derbies have resulted in duds after all the hype. Many encounters have been lukewarm. But that never stops the media and social media build-up. Days in advance, stories of their impending encounter are splashed across newspapers, fill the airwaves and fire up Facebook.
In 2018, World Soccer Magazine selected the Cairo derby the 10th “fiercest” in the world. That's high on the chart but illustrates that Ahly and Zamalek cannot compare with El Clásico, probably the most exciting derby in the world of football, contested between the two giants of Spanish football, Real Madrid and Barcelona, with some of the best talent in the world on display. Or the Milan derby between city rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan and often remembered more for the fighting than the football. Or the greatest rivalry in English football, Manchester United vs Liverpool, the two most successful clubs in Britain.
But at least in Africa and the Arab world, the Ahly-Zamalek face-off has a distinctly eastern flavour all its own because it's a championship all its own, onto itself.
As for those who don't quite see the thrill in football, even those who do not particularly care for the sport get caught up in the fever.
While children around the world are asked what they would like to be when they grow up, in Egypt the question usually is “do you like Ahly or Zamalek?”
From then until adulthood, an Egyptian is assessed, not just by gender, class and religion, but -- you may include -- by which team he or she supports. That choice can become a part of one's life throughout. You are who you root for.
Come Friday, there will be merriment and there will be misery.
Before we reach that stage, football fans throughout the region will want to witness not only history but a pretty good game.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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