Egyptian football authorities are still facing a security headache despite moving an African Champions League clash between Cairo rivals Ahly and Zamalek to a Red Sea resort, with the hardcore supporters of both sides determined to violate an enforced crowd ban.
Lingering security concerns in a country that is still struggling to restore order following the army’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi led to the cancellation of the Egyptian Premier League for the second successive season and cast doubts over the fate of Ahly and Zamalek in Africa’s elite club competition.
Both sides meet in their opening Group A game on Wednesday at a tiny 12,000-seat stadium in El-Gouna, around 450 km from Cairo, in what is expected to be a dour affair with an afternoon kick-off due to the lack of floodlight facilities.
Players from both sides voiced concerns over having to play in searing heat while fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan but that is not the major obstacle facing the Cairo derby.
Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights, ardent fan groups of Ahly and Zamalek respectively, have insisted they would attend the match despite warnings from Zamalek, the game hosts, that both clubs could be kicked out of the competition by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
CAF’s stance remains vague. Zamalek said they had received a stern warning from the African governing body but Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights claimed the threat was fabricated by the club to dissuade the fans from going to El-Gouna.
“Zamalek did not receive any letters from CAF. Those are only rumours spread by the people who oppose our return to the stands,” Ultras Ahlawy said on their Facebook page.
The interior ministry turned down requests by Zamalek to stage the match in Cairo or Alexandria, given the political turmoil that ensued after Morsi was deposed. The Cairo foes eventually preferred to play in El-Gouna rather than facing off overseas.
Return of stars
Ahly, who have won four games and drawn twice in six Champions League meetings with Zamalek, look favourites to maintain their domination over the White Knights as they welcome back influential duo Mohamed Abou-Treika and Ahmed Fathi, who ended loan spells at UAE side Bani Yas and English club Hull City respectively.
Cash-strapped Zamalek are reeling following the departure of Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who turned around their fortunes in his year in charge but opted not to renew his contract after growing increasingly frustrated with the club’s financial woes.
The same financial problems saw midfielder Ibrahim Salah leave to join Saudi Arabia’s Orouba and Burkinabe striker Abdoulaye Cisse go AWOL in protest at unpaid wages.
However, Zamalek are taking solace in the return of winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razek ‘Shikabala’ after a one-year loan stint at Emirati club Al-Wasl and the decision of veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan and striker Ahmed Gaafar to pen new deals after their contracts ran out.
“Despite the problems facing us, we are determined to claim all three points and kick off the group stage with a convincing victory,” former Zamalek striker Osama Nabih, who is the assistant of new coach Helmi Toulan, said on the club’s official website.
Zamalek are yearning to taste a rare win over an Ahly side who they last defeated in a Premier League encounter in 2007.
Ahly, the record holders of the Champions League with seven titles under their belt, are eyeing a second consecutive triumph while success-starved Zamalek are chasing their first continental title since 2002.
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