Egyptian football has been in the spotlight ever since the national side retained its continental title at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008, and barely a year goes by without the Cairo duo of Al Ahly and Zamalek playing an important part in the destiny of the CAF Champions League trophy. So much so, in fact, that the most coveted trophy in African club football has ended up in the Egyptian capital four times in the last seven years.
Crowned continental champions five times apiece, the Cairo giants are enjoying contrasting fortunes at the moment. While Al Ahly have strung together three consecutive league crowns, Zamalek have now gone four seasons without topping the table. In their hour of need, the White Knights have turned to the battle-hardened German coach Reiner Hollman to take them back to the pinnacle.
A veteran of 350 Bundesliga games during his playing career, the 58-year-old is no stranger to Cairo, having managed Al Ahly at the end of the 1990s. And as well as occupying the hot-seat at a number of clubs in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the vastly-experienced Hollman also led Galatasaray to the Turkish title in 1994.
Appointed just over a month ago, the German has already seen his new charges go down twice to their old city rivals, the first reverse coming in the Egyptian Super Cup and the second in their opening encounter in Group A of the Champions League ten days ago. Not unexpectedly, that double setback has put some early pressure on the new man, who gave FIFA.com his exclusive views ahead of Zamalek’s next continental outing on Sunday.
FIFA.com: Reiner, how much did the two defeats to Al Ahly hurt?
Reiner Hollman: We didn’t play badly in those two games. The real problem was that we committed more fouls. Let me make one thing very clear: we’re perfectly capable of reaching the level we need to challenge Al Ahly. The president wants to change things too and that’s important. He wants to re-establish some discipline and that’s exactly what I want as well. I want to guide Zamalek in the right direction.
Zamalek have won the Egyptian title 11 times and along with Etoile Sahel of Tunisia they are the second-most successful side in Africa, behind Al Ahly. Those are impressive honours but where do you see the club today?
The club haven't achieved what they've wanted to over the last five years and they’ve had a lot of problems to deal with. That’s the reason why the city’s second-biggest club have been trailing in the wake of their local rivals. Obviously that’s tough, especially for the fans. But the games that really matter are the derby matches against Al Ahly. To my mind they’re like the games you get in Germany between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, which always attract crowds of 80,000.
Zamalek have fared badly in the Cairo derby in recent years...
We’ve lost 13 of the last 15 games against Al Ahly and only won one and drawn the other. And when you look at those figures you can really understand why Zamalek fans want the good times to come back.
What is your plan?
The team has been broken up. Seven players have been sold, another has retired and six new players have come in, all of which means we need time. The key for me is discipline and it’s impossible to instil that again in a short period of time. But just as soon as we manage it, we’ll be able to challenge Al Ahly for a long time.
The club has huge support, a great tradition and a famous name. How important is all that to you?
There is no doubt that becoming Zamalek coach is a definite pinnacle in my career. Although it’s a tough assignment, I have to say that it’s a great honour to be working here and no matter how hard the job is it won’t stop me from trying to make improvements on a daily basis.
This is the second time you have coached in Cairo. Can you tell us how important football is in Egypt?
In that respect I’d say it’s comparable to Turkey. Football is the be all and end all in Egypt. There’s nothing else that worries or excites people more here and this is yet another wonderful experience for me. We’ve played two derbies in the space of a fortnight and 80,000 fans came to see us both times. That says it all. These people live and breathe football.
Dynamos of Zimbabwe are your opponents in your second game in Group A of the Champions League this weekend. After losing to Al Ahly it is a game you have to win, isn’t it?
Naturally there’s a lot of pressure on us after losing to our big rivals from across the city. We’ve got no option but to win. And we need to win the next match too. We’ve got two home matches coming up, first against Dynamos and then ASEC Mimosas of Côte d’Ivoire. Our objective is very clear. We have to pick up all six points.
What immediate impact would that have?
Well, it would calm things down a lot here for a start.