What does Al Ahly’s CAF Champions League victory, their seventh in all, represent for the Egyptian side? That is the question now being pondered by fans of African football, following the Cairo giants’ recent success in the prestigious continental competition. FIFA.com looks at the tragic background to this accomplishment, surely the most poignant in the club's history.
No other African team comes close to matching the amount of silverware amassed by Al Ahly, be it at domestic or continental level. The Red Devils, who celebrated their centenary five years ago, have won over 100 trophies during that time, making them one of the most successful outfits in world football, a fact recognised by CAF, who named Al Ahly ‘Africa’s club of the 20th century’ in 2000.
Al Ahly supporters have grown accustomed to seeing their heroes reach the latter stages of the Champions League over the years. Indeed, the seven-time African champions have made it to at least the semi-final stage more often than not. This latest victory, however, has been a particularly emotional one for the club and its loyal fanbase.
Scars of a disaster
In February 2012, Al Ahly were caught up in an unimaginable tragedy, when a riot led to the deaths of 72 of their fans within Port Said Stadium. The entire nation of Egypt was left traumatised by the event, and the national league was suspended until further notice.
The disaster had a significant psychological effect on the players involved. Some, such as Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat, gave serious contemplation to retiring from the game. Since that dreadful day, the side from the capital have not played a single domestic match, with the exception of the Egyptian Super Cup, a closed-doors encounter with ENPPI.
It took the Al Ahly squad two months to recover from the experience and reconvene. With many calling for the club to pull out of the Champions League as a mark of respect, the players instead decided to resume training, vowing to secure the continental title for the sake of the ‘martyrs’ of Port Said.
But after the away leg of their first-round tie against Ethiopian Coffee, the Egyptians’ failure to provide appropriate safety assurances to CAF saw them come close to being disqualified from the tournament.
It was only a few hours before the kick-off of the return match that Al Ahly finally received instructions to play all of their home legs behind closed doors, denying them the vital support of their fans. The decision did not, however, prevent the Egyptian representatives from seeing off their Ethiopian opponents by the resounding scoreline of 3-0.
A hard-fought but ultimately victorious pair of encounters with Stade Malien ensued, but as the group stage approached, they were forced to bid farewell to iconic Portuguese coach Manuel Jose, who was frustrated by the lack of competitive action at a national level. His former assistant, Hossam Al Badri, who had recently guided Sudanese outfit Al Merreikh to the league title, was subsequently handed the reins.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of Al Ahly’s worries, as an injury to international striker Emad Motaeb compelled the new man in charge to reshuffle his pack up front. To make matters worse, the suspension of domestic games had a considerably negative impact on the finances of the club, traditionally one of the most affluent in Africa, rendering the signing of a suitable forward practically impossible.
In addition, Al Ahly talisman Aboutrika refused to take part in the recent Egyptian Super Cup match with ENPPI, a decision that was criticised by many of his team-mates and led to his being hit with a two-month ban by the club.
But even without their star player, Al Ahly surged to the Champions League final, where, with Aboutrika back in the squad, they defeated Tunisian heavyweights Esperance 3-2 on aggregate.
While the victory was founded on tremendous teamwork, there were also outstanding individual performances from captain Hossam Ghali, midfielders Abdallah Al Saied and Walid Soliman, front man Mohamed ‘Gedo’ Nagy and back-up striker El Sayed Hamdi, who came off the bench to score in the first leg in Alexandria and set up the opening goal of the away leg.
During the wild celebrations that followed the final whistle in Tunis, Aboutrika did not forget to stick to the promise made by the team many months before. “This trophy is dedicated to the martyrs of Port Said. We did this for them and for their families,” he said.
Overcoming numerous problems – the lack of a national league, financial concerns, the departure of their coach, and matches played behind closed doors – in their quest to be crowned African champions was an impressive enough feat, but doing it against the backdrop of a devastating tragedy means few will deny the Al Ahly players and fans the right to revel in what will undoubtedly go down as one of the club’s greatest triumphs.