Saturday, December 02, 2006

Walk Like An Egyptian

There is a team taking part in this year's World Club Championships that regularly plays home matches in front of crowds of over seventy thousand, and has an estimated fanbase that runs to tens of millions, but it isn't Barcelona. It isn't Club America, either. Or Internacional. It's the current Egyptian and African champions, Al Alhy Sporting Club. They are massive. In a country that is every bit as obsessive as about football as any in Europe or South America, they are the equivalent of Manchester United.

Curiously, FIFA and Wikipedia seem unable to agree upon just how big their support is. FIFA say fifty million, whilst Wiki go for the slightly more modest forty million. Either figure puts them comfortably into the top ten supported clubs in the world, with the sort of reach that the likes of Chelsea can only dream of. Their trophy list is of the length that other teams can only dream of, too. Thirty-one Egyptian League championships, thirty-four Egyptian Cups, five times winners of the CAF Champions League. They're footballing royalty, and most people have never heard of them.

Egypt are the massive under-achievers of African football. The culture is in place, and the support is massive, but their national team, which was often predicted to make a significant impact in the World Cup (in the days before Cameroon in 1990) has always let its people down. Ahly's rise to pre-eminence within the domestic game began in the early 1960s, when they were coached by the former Hungarian international (and team-mate of Ferenc Puskas) Nador Hidegkuti. He brought with him the revolutionary coaching skills that had catatpulted Hungary to the World Cup final in 1954, but it wasn't until 1982 that they became the African champions for the first time. They have since done it again in 1987, 2001, 2005 and again this year.

There is a hint of sadness to Ahly's involvement in this competition. On August 31st of this year, one of their players, Mohamed Abdelwahab, collapsed during training from a heart attack and died on his way to hospital, just six weeks after his twenty-third birthday. Abdelwahab was no ordinary squad player. He struggled at first to break into the Ahly first team, but made his mark when he came off the substitute's bench in the final of the 2005 CAF Champions League against the Tunisian team Etoile Sahel to set up their second goal in a 3-0 win. He was also an Egyptian international, and had played for Egypt in the 2006 Afican Nations Cup final in Cairo, scoring a penalty in the host nation's shoot-out win against Ivory Coast.

So... how good are they? Well, it's tough to tell. They haven't played in this competition before, but the CAF Champions League is a tough competition to win, and to do it twice in a row is a major achievement. They have got, in the memory of their lost player, someone to "do it for", and we know how much support they've got at home, though whether much of that support will be able to travel to the far east or not is a different matter. Their squad is almost exclusively home-grown, and contains a large number of representatives from the current African champions. There is also the widespread belief that Al-Ahly SC have got something to prove. It's all very well having millions and millions of supporters, but the CAF Champions League doesn't have the same reputation as its European equivalent or the Copa Libertadores. If Al Ahly really are one of the world's great clubs, this is really their only available stage to prove it. I do expect them to brush Auckland City on the first round, and I do think that they are capable of beating Internacional. It might surprise you to see me saying this, but I seriously think that Al Ahly Sporting Club can go all the way to the final of this competition.


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