Hard to predict

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 7 May 2024

There’s little daylight between Zamalek and Berkane as they prepare to meet in the final of the African Confederation Cup.

Zamalek

 

As Zamalek of Egypt and Morocco’s RS Berkane approach the starting gate, the final of football’s African Confederation Cup, it’s a toss-up as to who will emerge the champion.

The set-up of the two-legged final of the Confederation Cup, similar in stature to the Europa League, has Zamalek playing the first leg of the final away from home on 12 May with the second leg taking place in Cairo on 19 May.

There is no clear favourite and their respective records serve few clues.

The two North Africans reached the final in not so different ways. In Group B, Zamalek finished first with 16 points from six games (five wins, one draw and no losses).

In Group D, Berkane ended on top with 14 points (four wins, two draws and no defeats).

But whereas Zamalek had no opposing team of note in their group, Berkane were challenged a bit by experienced Malian outfit Stade Malien who won the Confederation Cup in 2009 and reached this year’s quarter-finals before bowing out.

In the quarters, Zamalek beat fellow Egyptians Modern Future 2-1 and 1-1, then advanced to the final but only after springing two surprises, one bad, one good. They frustratingly drew 0-0 against upstarts Dreams of Ghana in Cairo before oddly blanking them 3-0 in the second leg on the road (the last result bettered the previous best away result in the penultimate stage in the tournament — a 3-1 victory by SuperSport United of South Africa against Club Africain of Tunisia seven seasons ago).

There was drama, too, in Berkane’s semi-final with USM Alger of Algeria but of a different kind: the two games were never played. A jersey dispute sent Berkane to the final despite the Moroccans having not touched the ball.

USM Alger, the defending champions of the Confederation Cup, were incensed by Berkane’s insistence to wear a jersey which carried a map of Morocco that included the disputed Western Sahara.

The former Spanish colony of Western Sahara is largely controlled by Morocco but claimed by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which seeks the territory’s independence.

Algeria broke off diplomatic relations with Morocco in 2021, partly over the issue.

However, the African Football Federation (CAF) said Berkane had been wearing the same jerseys since the start of the tournament and, as such, registered both semi-final games as 3-0 wins for Berkane.

Two semi-finals in the tournament abandoned in one week was an extraordinary development which will probably lead to further punishment for USM Alger. The issue will be submitted to a CAF disciplinary board for possible additional sanctions.

Alger could anticipate being banned indefinitely from playing in the cup along with payment of a hefty fine.

But CAF will most likely have to await a ruling by the International Court of Sport after Algeria took their case there.

In the tournament Zamalek and Berkane are currently vying for, it’s 2-1 for Berkane.

In 2019 Zamalek won their only Confederation Cup, beating Berkane on penalties 5-3 after the teams had won one game apiece 1-0.

In 2020, Berkane lifted the Confederation Cup for their first time after defeating Egyptian side Pyramids 1-0 in a one-off final in Morocco.

Berkane took home their second Confederation Cup in 2022 after they edged South Africa’s Orlando Pirates 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in regulation and extra time.

So, while Berkane won the trophy two years ago, and a lot of things can go wrong in a club in two years, even worse can happen to a club who won it five years ago.

Berkane might have the edge in coaching. Mouin Chaâbani is a Tunisian who led Tunisian club Esperance to two titles in the African Champions League, the continent’s most famous football club tournament. Chaâbani is also familiar with Egyptian football, having coached clubs Masri and Ceremica Cleopatra as late as last year.

Zamalek’s coach, José Gomes of Portugal, is relatively new, arriving at the club only in February this year.

While Gomes has gotten Zamalek this far in the Confederation Cup, he and his team have found the going more difficult in the domestic league. Zamalek lost on Sunday to Semouha 1-0 despite the Alexandrian team playing with only 10 men towards the end.

The loss snapped Zamalek’s three-game winning streak in the league, which included a 2-1 win over crosstown rivals Ahly. The defeat kept Zamalek in 12th place with 24 points after 15 games.

They must constantly look over their shoulder as Ahly, the defending champions, have 27 points from 13 games. Though Ahly are in 10th place, that is not an accurate picture of their situation because of the extremes in games not yet played. There are four clubs in the highly tilted Egyptian league who have played 21 matches and six clubs with 20. Ahly and Zamalek have played the least times.

One of Zamalek’s biggest advantages over Berkane is to be playing the first game in Morocco. The home team never really knows whether, for example, a 1-0 or 2-1 win will be enough to carry them over the two-game finish line. In the second game, though, the home team knows exactly what it needs to do for the aggregate victory. And best to do it in front of a packed stadium of supporters.

There are always many questions surrounding a first game; there is only one clear answer in the second.

And if Zamalek on 12 May could score an away goal — which still counts in Africa as a possible two as opposed to Europe — it could help tremendously in the final game in Cairo.

Of course, as long as Burkane doesn’t score an away goal of their own.  

 


* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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