Africa’s two most successful teams reignite their fierce rivalry, but doing it with empty stands might not be the worst thing in the world.
There is some consolation in the fact that, in this unusual year, the biggest event in African club football will be contested by the two most successful entities on the continent.
If a disk-shaped airship flying ship were to land on Earth, carrying sentient beings from a distant planet into the vast emptiness of space, and demanded (or even kindly requested) a crash course in all that is the Champions League of the Coffee above, they wouldn’t get a better answer than Al Ahly vs Zamalek.
The stakes are not as galactic as this scenario portrays, but the importance and scale of this game are not far off.
Understand, this is less a rivalry between soccer clubs and more of an ideological, almost political divide. In a world increasingly stripped of individualism, these two giants exist as the basis of social identity in Egypt; one is an Ahly supporter or a Zamalek supporter.
The sentiment on both sides is so strong that even Mohamed Salah, his country’s most iconic soccer star, has refused to clearly express his preference and instead voted for an interesting final in a recent interview.
After all, the history of the Cairo derby has been fraught with suspicion, recriminations, conspiracy theories and even violence.
So hot has been the fire of his fervor that, in a famous case in December 1971, the entire league season was engulfed in flames after the awarding of a penalty to Zamalek sent Ahly fans storming the field. in protest.
Five years earlier, the fire was of a literal variety, with a section of the stadium burned down during the derby while fans, spurred on by dissent from Ahly fans, went wild.
In 2003, Ahly lost the title on the last day of the league season, and to this day there are those who claim it was at the behest of senior government officials, who favored Zamalek and ordered their players to pitch the final match. against ENPPI.
When the two sides met in the Super Cup in February, a fight ensued after the White Knights’ victory in the penalty shoot-out, and when their league match came a few days later, the winners lost in protest against the sanctions imposed (to both teams) by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA).
Not even the practice, dating back to 1956, of having foreign arbitrators as arbitrators has done much to dispel doubts; As all fans know, the whole world is divided on the same line as them. Knowing this then, it’s no surprise that when Caf named Ahly the club of the 20th century, Zamalek immediately claimed bias, challenging that claim on the grounds that they had won more continental titles overall.
It is this depth of feeling, this intensity, this constant effort to overcome that will come to a head on Friday night when Ahly and Zamalek face off in what has been called the End of the Century (this is supposed to work like a “tiebreaker” delay, essentially).
That their culmination, despite winning 13 Caf Champions League titles and appearing in 19 finals between them, they had never met in the Final before, will take place inside an empty Cairo Stadium is the cruelest irony. Due to Covid-19 restrictions and in the interest of public safety, Caf and the EFA published a joint statement in this regard two days ago.
Especially considering there was a real danger of cancellation at one point, this will certainly work just fine – better half a loaf than nothing. It could also, in all honesty, be the best. Under the current circumstances, the last thing Caf would want to deal with is controversy and insecurity in his club final with the world watching, especially in a week that has seen its president indicted by the FIFA Ethics Committee.
The coronavirus pandemic outbreak also effectively unbalanced the 2019/20 Champions League, thwarting plans to transition to an August-May schedule and requiring the host city to move from Douala to Cairo (and that’s only determined by the results of the semifinals, which only took place in October).
As such, an empty stadium may not be the worst compromise to make.
Attention will now focus solely on the players, and it is they who must seize the occasion, interpreting the tactical plans of their coaches to create an attractive show.
For Ahly, coach Pitso Mosimane faces significant pressure as he was hired from Mamelodi Sundowns at great expense. Their success has a lot at stake, especially the prospects of coaches from sub-Saharan Africa, to whom the doors of the biggest clubs in North Africa have mostly been closed. Winning here would not only keep him in place, but could completely reshape the culture of African club football.
So far, the reviews of her work have been largely positive, and Ahly will be a favorite. The Red Devils delivered Wydad Casablanca impressively in the semi-finals, and they can count on the excellent Ali Maaloul, one of the best left-backs on the continent, as well as Hussein El Shahat and Marwan Mohsen in attack.
Portugal’s Jaime Pacheco leads Zamalek, back for the second time after his first six years ago. In Achraf Bencharki and Mostafa Mohamed, he has a star first line; Throughout the competition, Zamalek has not won a game without either of these two having scored.
Beyond Covid, beyond a rivalry that defines a city and shakes a nation, beyond the murky politics of Caf, this is ultimately what it boils down to. The two best teams on the continent, full of offensive talent; one with a more collectivist ideal in his work, the other with a blockbuster front.
Against all vicissitudes, football will hopefully be the big winner.
source: – target