The Egyptian Premier League is finally set to resume after a three-month suspension forced by an uprising and subsequent departure of President Hosni Mubarak.
The decision to go ahead is not without controversy, though. Crowd disturbances at the CAF Champion’s League match between Zamalek and Club Africain, which ended with the Tunisian side qualifying amid chaotic scenes, have cast doubt on its wisdom. The government, however, is determined to restore normalcy both in the interests of the football clubs and a society preparing for national elections.
The decision was taken after first securing a commitment by the Interior Ministry to provide security at all Egyptian league games. The Egyptian Football Association has backed the move with its announcement of harsh penalties for clubs whose fans cause trouble, ranging from playing matches without fan support through to points deduction.
The battle at the summit
For those sides near the top of the table, the second part of the season is sure to be fiercely contested. Zamalek currently are at the top of the standings, just three points clear of nearest pursuers Ismaily, while six points separate them from rivals Al Ahly in fifth.
Though difficult to say with certainty, the long lay-off appears to have hit Zamalek hardest of all. The club’s financial difficulties have led to friction within the institution and, while not the only club with money troubles, Zamalek are facing unique challenges.
Last week a group of first-team players presented an official complaint to the Egyptian Football Association over unpaid wages. Team morale took a further blow when the club’s coach, former Egypt international star Hossam Hassan, announced he would be stripping skipper and goalkeeper Abdel Wahed El-Sayed of the captain’s armband for his involvement. El-Sayed, for his part, has threatened to leave the club at the end of the season.
Their woes have only been compounded by their exit from the CAF Champion’s League in circumstances that have saddened observers of Egyptian football. Liable for the costs of all repairs to the Cairo International Stadium following the afore-mentioned crowd disturbances, the club will also face as-yet undeclared disciplinary measures from CAF.
On a more positive note, Zamalek have high hopes for their returning striker Ahmed ‘Mido’ Hossam, who left the club last winter for what proved to be a difficult season in Europe with West Ham United and Ajax. Mido whetted the fans’ appetite in his first game back, however, scoring in a 2-0 friendly win victory over Kuwaiti side Al Qadissiya.
Their league campaign resumes in earnest this Thursday with a tough fixture against 11th-placed Haras El Hedood. Worryingly for fans of the White Knights, their club are still looking for their first victory after five Premier League encounters with El Hedood, the most recent a first-round 2-2 draw in Alexandria.
The situation for defending champions Al Ahly could hardly be more different. Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the Premier League’s suspension, the club’s returning coach Manuel Jose has used the time to iron out some problems with the help of friendly matches. The difference in quality between the Red Devils’ first league game with Jose back at the helm, a 1-1 draw against Premier League debutants Misr Elmaqasah in January, and the Egyptian giant’s recent performances in seeing off South African champions SuperSport United to reach the second round of this year’s CAF Champions’ League, was notable.
Jose also had a message for those who claimed Al Ahly are out of the running for the league title. “Some people are handing out prizes very prematurely,” he said. “We’ll wait and see who’s smiling at the end.”
Al Ahly are scheduled to meet third-placed Police Union tomorrow in what promises to be a fiercely contested match, with both teams tied on 26 points. For the returning coach, the match poses something of a personal challenge, as he is yet to record a win over his opponents, managing two draws and a loss during his previous stint at Al Ahly.
Ismaily would appear to have a less daunting task ahead of them. They kick off proceedings away to Petrojet, who like other state-company-owned clubs, are feeling the effects of recent administrative restructuring. Also in Ismaily’s favour is the fact that their exit from the CAF Confederation Cup will allow them to focus entirely on the league, while the return from injury of Omar Gamal should also provide a welcome boost.
Tight at the bottom
The drama will not be confined to the top of the table either. The long hiatus is unlikely to have helped a number of clubs keen to extract themselves from the relegation zone. Wady Degla SC, Arab Contractors and Al Ittihad will be under intense pressure to perform in the coming weeks, with the latter in perhaps the most precarious position of all. Bottom of the table with a mere 11 points, the club is experiencing administrative difficulties after demonstrations by fans and employees triggered sweeping changes to the board.
Player to watch
Dominique Da Silva, Al Ahly’s Mauritanian forward, is one player guaranteed close scrutiny after the resumption. With forward Emad Moteab struggling for consistency, the Red Devils’ huge army of fans are hoping the gifted goal-getter can fill the shoes of Angolan Flavio, who left the club last year for Saudi outfit Al Shabab.
Have your say
Given the extraordinary events of the last few months, which team do you think will perform best following the resumption of the Egyptian Premier League?