The people want an African title!
After a season that has had so many moments to forget, a sporting victory would give the average Egyptian citizen something to remember. With the country’s future looking so uncertain it is hard not to cast one’s mind back to the all-night street parties that came in the wake of Egypt’s triumph at the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and marvel at football’s undiminished power to bring people together.
Things are different today, however. Following the tragic events in Port Said, domestic football has ground to a halt and the majority of the country’s top flight clubs have been left kicking their heels and wondering just when they will play again.
However, amid the gloom there is hope. Three Egyptian sides still fly the flag in two of Africa’s premier tournaments. If all goes well, powerhouses Al Ahly and Zamalek will be competing together in the group stage of the 2012 CAF Champions League while ENPPI are Egypt’s sole representative at the CAF Confederation Cup. However, with locals barred from attending matches played in Egypt, the teams will have to do without the traditional home-ground advantage.
Fans of both sides are obviously hoping for continental glory, but in the event of one team being eliminated, many fans from either side of the divide have vowed to lend their support to the club that remains in contention.
Al Ahly staying United
The six-time African champions were beaten 1-0 in the first leg of their second-round match against Stade Malien, leaving them with work to do if they are to progress to the group stage. With Al Ahly struggle, and distractions beyond football plentiful, will the Red Devils’ fans remain as devoted to football during the current upheaval within the country?
One such fan, Hatem Ahmed, is adamant on this point: “All Egypt will be following the clubs’ progress in the Champions League, not to mention the English Premier League and La Liga in Spain! The cafes will be packed out because following and enjoying football lets people forget about politics.”
It is a view echoed by fellow fan, Mohammed Abdel Hadi. “Politics has nothing to do with watching football!” he said jovially. “I’m watching all Al Ahly’s Champions League games just like any other year.”
“In fact it’s even more enjoyable this year,” he added, “because people are so desperate for any good news. If they manage to win this time, I’ll go out and party all night with my friends. However, I won’t be too sad if they get knocked out. After all, these are trying circumstances for any Egyptian side and at least they’ll have done their best.”
Zamalek hoping for revival
Zamalek’s CAF Champions League record is almost as enviable, with five titles to their name, the most recent coming in 2002. Having claimed no silverware the Egyptian Cup in 2008, though, these are beginning to be seen as barren times for club of their stature. However, hopes are high that the arrival of former striker and national coach Hassan Shehata could bring back the good times.
Leading the first leg of their their second-round game with Maghreb Fes 2-0, Zamalek look to have an easier task ahead of them than Al Ahly. Their supporters certainly believe that, despite trouble at home, they have the edge, displaying their passion less enthusiastic than their counterparts across the Nile.
“It’s in my nature to watch every game,” said White Knights supporter Essam Al Shaer. “People are pretty tense right now so when we beat Maghreb Fes 2-0 my friends and I went wild. If Zamalek win the championship I’ll jump for joy.”
We are all ENPPI…
While it is true that 2011 Egypt Cup winners ENPPI cannot command the sort of support enjoyed by their prestigious Cairo-based counterparts, the club still boasts an excellent squad of players led by former Al Ahly coach Hossam El Badry. However, with the team competing in a separate competition to the Egyptian giants, the plucky newcomers will no doubt be hoping the whole country will get behind them in their quest to bring continental silverware back home.
Hussein Ali, a waiter in a Cairo café, explained why many in the country will be casting club loyalties aside when it comes to continental football: “For so many years football has been the only source of happiness for most Egyptians, but this season has been tough for all of us. It’s the first time the national team hasn’t competed in the Africa Cup of Nations,” he elaborated, “and then the Port Said tragedy led to the league and Egypt Cup being cancelled. Africa is all we have left now. We hope that ENPPI can leave their mark and make their supporters and all Egyptians happy. We really need it!”
As things stand, ENPPI are currently waiting on the CAF to respond to their request to move the tie away from the home Cercle Olympique de Bamako (COB), considering the political unrest in Mali. Depending on outcome of the body’s deliberations, they may still have to travel to the Malian capital, but the club’s 3-1 first-leg victory makes them firm favourites to progress.
If ENPPI do go all the way and win the tournament, they will go down in history as the first Egyptian team to win the tournament both under its former incarnation as the African Cup Winners’ Cup and the current CAF Confederation Cup format.