The bedrock of Al Ahly’s legendary success in the CAF Champions League has come from a consistent cast of star performers, including their coach, who will always represent an era of over-achievement by the Cairo giants. But as Portuguese boss Manuel Jose and his charges fight for the club's seventh overall continental title, the side are also attempting the difficult process of passing the baton between two generations.
Venerable names like Mohamed Barakat, Mohamed Aboutrika and striker Emad Moteab have indisputably made their mark on the club's history, but none have as glittering an array of achievement, or as golden a collection of medals, as the giant defender Wael Gomaa, who this year is chasing an unprecedented fifth winners’ medal in the continent’s top club competition. Manuel Jose also has been part of all four of Ahly’s successes in the Champions League over the last decade, and a fifth medal for the pair would secure for them a place in African football’s hall of fame.
Battle continues at the weekend
Al Ahly might have just a single win from three group matches in this year's tournament, and they face a tough away game in Morocco against Raja Casablanca at the weekend, but they must be considered still a strong bet to reach the semi-finals next month – a stage they have reached in five of the last six seasons. Advancement will help keep them on their record-breaking course and strengthen their undisputed position as the most successful club side in Africa.
For years, their side has had a core of long-serving characters on which the foundations of a winning formula have been laid. Players like goalkeeper Essam Al Hadari, defenders Shady Mohamed and Ahmed El Sayed, midfielder Hossam Achour and Mohamed Shawky and Angolan imports Gilberto and Flavio have become household names on the continent through their achievements with the Red Devils.
Gomaa, however, is in a league of his own. He has the added achievement of having won three CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles as well, making him arguably the most successful modern footballer at national team and club level. The 36-year-old also won his 100th cap for Egypt’s Pharaohs in March when they lost to South Africa in a Cup of Nations qualifier. This is besides the considerable achievement in domestic competition where Al Ahly have won an impressive seven league titles in a row.
Ahly's modern march to greatness started in 2001 when they beat South African side Mamelodi Sundowns 4-1 on aggregate to win their first Champions League since 1987. But their run of success that began in 2005, and included three titles and a runners-up medal in four years, truly propelled the side to legendary status.
Barakat was the genius behind their success in 2005 and from that winning side against Tunisia's Etoile Sahel in the final, Moteab, Aboutrika and Gomaa also still wear the red of Al Ahly. Barakat had the potential to become the greatest Arab player of all time but has suffered consistent injury worries through the years. His latest affliction is a broken arm, which will keep him out of the club’s next two CAF Champions League encounters.
Moteab is back in scoring form and Aboutrika is attempting to regain his ability to dominate a game, which was most apparent in 2006, when he authored a dramatic winner in the final against another Tunisian side, CS Sfaxien. Ahmed Fathi featured as a substitute in the 2008 final success against Coton Sport of Cameroon but now takes a lead role in the team. He reportedly turned down an offer to play for Queens Park Rangers in England this year to stay in Cairo. After 12 years with Ahly, famed goalkeeper Al Hadari currently plays in Sudan after short side trips through Europe and with two other Egyptian clubs, Ismaily and Zamalek.
Jose, who is in his third stint with the club in the last decade, has proven over the years that a winning team needs a strong spin of reliable performers, allied with craft and speed. But times are changing and Jose said recently: “My best players are getting older and we are not as powerful as in previous years.” It might be that the golden names of Al Ahly are now fast approaching the end of their respective careers, but it would only be a fool who would write them off in this year’s Champions League.