No place like home for Pharaohs

When pundits predicted the recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations would be the best yet, they invariably justified their forecast by citing the presence of big names such as Drogba, Eto'o, Essien and Kanoute. Yet while the competition, with its open, free-scoring matches, certainly lived up to these lofty expectations, the players who did most to justify the hype were not to be found within Africa's star-studded English and Spanish contingents.

Instead, the show was stolen by the likes of Essam al-Hadary, Hosny Abd-Rabou, Amr Zaky, Wael Gomaa and Mohamed Aboutrika, all of whom ply their trade within the considerably less glamorous confines of Egypt's Premier League. This unheralded quintet certainly dominated the CAF's end of tournament All-Star team and while any one of them could have claimed the honour of Ghana 2008's best player, Abd-Rabou proved a popular and apt choice, the defensive midfielder's skill and selflessness having typified the Pharaohs' campaign.

Egypt's victory was, of course, remarkable in so many ways, but the make-up of the team that brought home the country's sixth Cup of Nations title represented as significant a triumph for its domestic league as it was for the Pharaohs themselves.

What Ghana 2008 certainly proved beyond doubt was that while Spain, England and Italy may promise riches and TV exposure, Africa's own domestic leagues - and Egypt's in particular - remain well capable of nurturing and developing some of the fittest, skilled and most tactically aware footballers in the world. That's why it was not the star-studded hosts, nor the much-fancied Ivorians, with their London-based stars, who claimed continental supremacy, but rather a 23-man Egyptian squad dominated by 18 players from the likes of Al Ahly, Zamalek and Ismaily.

Ahly's 33rd title within reach
These three clubs were each represented, for example, by Egypt's joint-top scorers in Ghana - Aboutrika, Zaky and Abt-Rabou respectively - and yesterday witnessed this trio of national icons return to domestic battle for the first time since their Cup of Nations heroics. Zaky and Abd-Rabou, in fact, found themselves in direct opposition as Ismaily and Zamalek - both of whom have underperformed this season - attempted to belatedly close the gap on leaders Al Ahly.

With these teams languishing in fourth and fifth place respectively, a win was needed to revive either's title hopes, and after 86 goalless minutes in Ismailia, it was Abd-Rabou who once again rose to the occasion, firing home the game's decisive goal. It was a strike that took Ismaily on to 29 points, 13 behind Ahly but with a game in hand, while Zamalek, five points back on 24, appear to have lost all realistic hope of returning the title to Giza.

Firm favourites to claim the Egyptian crown are, once again, Aboutrika's Al Ahly, for whom Al-Hadary - voted Africa's best keeper for the second Cup of Nations running - keeps goal. The Cairo giants are targeting a fourth successive league championship, their 33rd in total, and took a step closer to that goal with a narrow 1-0 win over Al Masry. This was the leaders' eighth successive win, and it's a measure of just comfortable they are that 63-times-capped Gomaa - often linked with a move to England's Premier League - has been allowed to go out on loan to Qatari outfit Al-Siliva.

Ahly's match-winner was Mohammed Barakat, who missed out on Ghana 2008 after starring for Egypt two years earlier, the midfielder's 65th-minute goal extending the lead at the top to 10 points. Their closest challengers are now fellow Cairo outfit Petrojet, who leapfrogged Al Gaish - beaten 1-0 by Suez Cement - with a resounding 4-0 home win over mid-table Tersana.

Transfer speculation
The destination of the Egyptian Premier League title may be all but assured, but the future of Egypt's star players themselves would appear considerably less certain. Zaky, for example, has been widely linked with a return to Europe, where he spent a brief and unhappy spell at Lokomotiv Moscow in 2006, with English duo Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur both credited with an interest.

Abd-Rabou, meanwhile, is reportedly being courted by a string of top flight clubs in England, France and Turkey, although he too may be put off by the memory of a less than glorious stint with Strasbourg, who were relegated during his time at the club. Al-Hadary, meanwhile, even at 35, may yet tempt a big European club searching for a goalkeeper capable of thriving on the big occasion - and saving a penalty or two.

But what of Mohamed Aboutrika, the player described as "the best footballer in Africa" by his coach Manuel Jose. The man of the match in Egypt's final win over will turn 30 in November and having told in May 2006 of his ambition to play in Spain, it appears that Aboutrika will face a 'now or never' situation when the transfer window re-opens.

All four certainly proved in Ghana that they would excel on any stage and yet, should these much-speculated moves to Europe fail to materialise, it has been shown beyond doubt that their current environment will enable them to excelling for both club and country.