A rebuilding phase was in the past a long and tiring process punctuated by numerous difficulties but now, as long as money talks, it happens just like that, with Zamalek ending an 11-year Egyptian Premier League drought in style.
The success-starved Cairo giants, who could only win three Egyptian Cups in the past 11 years - a modest outcome by the standards of their demanding fans - clinched the title without kicking a ball on Tuesday after nearest challengers Ahly were held to a surprise 1-1 draw by Smouha.
Zamalek's outspoken chairman Mortada Mansour, a controversial figure who is also hated by the club’s hardcore fans following a number of face-offs, spent heavily last summer to bolster an underachieving squad, signing more than a dozen players in a stunning spending spree given Zamalek’s constant financial woes.
Boosted by a lucrative deal with Presentation Media, a sports marketing company that was responsible for putting ads on the team’s kit, as well as a season-long loan contract struck with Jeddah-based side Ahli that saw them sign left-back Mohamed Abdel-Shafi for $1.2 million gave Zamalek the ability to flex their muscles in the summer transfer window.
Many of those who arrived in the close season played an instrumental role in giving Zamalek the edge over illustrious rivals Ahly, themselves in a rebuilding phase after the retirement and departure of some key players.
Burly striker Bassem Morsi was Zamalek’s top scorer with 17 goals, talented playmaker Ayman Hefni had four goals and 11 assists to his name and Ali Gabr and Burkinabe Mohamed Koffi forged a rock-solid partnership in the heart of a powerful four-man defence that only leaked 19 goals in 36 matches.
Even some of the new faces who made a slow start blossomed in the crucial stages of the season.
One clear example is Nigerian midfielder Maarouf Yussuf, who reports suggested would be offloaded but he silenced skeptics with a series of outstanding displays when it mattered most, prompting Zamalek’s fans to fondly call him “Paul Pogba” in reference to Juventus’ French midfielder.
Others also stepped in whenever a key player suffered an injury, including defensive midfielder Tarek Hamed who has been one of the new arrivals who frequently came off the bench to ensure a gap would be filled as Zamalek’s squad depth made the difference in the longest domestic season since the league was inaugurated in 1948.
“We are grateful to the chairman for what he did this season. The signings he made propelled us to the title,” said Zamalek’s board member Hani Zada.
Mansour said he would continue to spend big to keep Zamalek, long ridiculed by rival fans as not a worthy competitor, on top of the football’s echelon.
“All what Zamalek fans need to do is to dream. What happens next is my responsibility,” he said.
A 2-0 Cairo derby defeat by Ahly in the latter stages was hard to swallow for Zamalek's supporters after it extended the club's winless run against their foes to 20 matches but it had no bearing on the standings.
While Jesualdo Ferreira, called The Professor by Zamalek’s fans, is taking credit for finishing off the season in the best possible way, there were three predecessors who also had a hand in the long-awaited triumph that came despite a merry-go-round that can hardly be associated with a champion.
Egypt’s all-time top scorer Hossam Hassan returned for a second stint in charge of Zamalek last summer but his tenure lasted for three league games after he was sacked for only collecting five points from a possible nine.
Portuguese boss Jaime Pacheco succeeded him at the helm, instilling a much-needed defensive solidity and relying on efficient breakaways that bore his hallmark but he abruptly left the club halfway through the season, citing problems with the firebrand Mansour, just when he started to win over the demanding fans.
Caretaker coach Mohamed Salah ensured there won’t be any slip-ups while even increasing Zamalek’s proficiency in the final third in several games, including a 1-1 derby draw with Ahly.
It was then the turn of former Porto manager Ferreira to complete a remarkable season that saw Zamalek set a record of the biggest point tally, taking advantage of the fact that it’s the first time the competition comprises 20 teams.
“It’s not only about Ferreira; his predecessors also deserve credit for our achievement. And this also demonstrates that the signings we made were the biggest and most crucial factor in our league triumph,” Mansour said.
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