A familiar face. Familiar name. Familiar outcome.
The biggest name in African club football got even bigger on Sunday night when Egyptian giants Ahly came from behind to draw 1-1 with Wydad of Morocco in Casablanca to recapture the African Champions League.
Egyptian defender Mohamed Abdel-Moneim headed home a 78th minute header, cancelling a 1-0 halftime lead from Yehia Attiyat Allah’s free kick.
Ahly won the tie with a 3-2 aggregate score, having recorded a 2-1 victory at home in the first leg in Cairo the week before.
The final win gave Ahly a record-extending 11th continental title. In second place are crosstown rivals Zamalek and TP Mazemba of the DR Congo at five apiece.
Ahly have now won the CAF Champions League title for a third time in the last four years.
Sunday was their 16th appearance in the finals.
Because of Ahly’s hammerlock on the Champions League, the most prestigious club tournament in African football, the BBC recently anointed Ahly as the “Real Madrid of Africa”.
In fact, Ahly, Africa’s Club of the Century, have such a chokehold on this particular competition that the name “Ahly” might as well replace the word “African” when etched on the Champions League trophy.
For a while on Sunday, though, it looked like Ahly were going to do go down to Wydad, the defending champions who beat Ahly 2-0 last year (when the final was just one game) at the same venue.
Wydad were headed for a 1-0 win, courtesy of Attiyat Allah’s goal in the 28th minute and which would have been enough to see them retain the title on the away goals rule.
Attiyat Allah’s direct kick posed problems for goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Shinnawi who did not play in the first leg due to injury. The cross was struck just right, close to the goal but far enough to prevent Al-Shinnawi from leaving his line.
With Al-Shinnawi possibly worried that a Wydad player would get to the ball first, the goalkeeper was focussing on that possibility, as well as trying to keep his eye on the ball. Because he could not do both at the same time, and by the time he realised no one was going to get to the ball, it had curled in.
But as he has done so often, Abdel-Moneim made a brilliant run to the near left post, heading a behind-the-back flick from an Ali Maaloul corner to the extreme right side to send the sparse crowd of Ahly fans in the Stade Mohamed V Complex into pandemonium.
In the dying seconds, Ahly could have put the match to bed if not for a double save by Youssef Al-Moeti on Mohamed Sherif from a tight angle.
For his staunch defending and goal, Abdel-Moneim was named Player of the Match. The 24-year-old centre-back scored four goals in this year’s Champions League campaign, all coming from headers from Maaloul’s crosses.
It was a typical feisty North African derby. The chances were few and the air was thick from smoke from firecrackers from cheering Moroccans.
In the stadium, meanwhile, for some strange reason, Moroccans came dressed in red and waved anything red, even though Wydad were wearing white, their home colours, while Ahly were decked out in an all-red ensemble. An observer would have been forgiven if thinking the arena was all cheering for Ahly.
On the field, the battle was immense, especially in midfield. Ahly’s biggest weapon this season has been their attacking trio of South African Percy Tau, Mahmoud Kahraba and Hussein Al-Shahat. They scored 15 goals between them.
But the three were out of sorts in the final, as were Hamdi Fathi and Marwan Attia, reliable bulwarks throughout the season. They all had an off day and exited, forcing Marcel Koller to make double substitutions twice in the second half.
On the eve of the match, Koller made much of Ethiopian referee Bamlak Tessema’s public intention to retire after the game. In a press conference, Ahly’s first-year coach was concerned over the choice of Tessema to officiate the second leg, describing it as “an annoying and very worrying matter. He will not have any commitments or responsibilities after the game.”
Koller seemed to insinuate that since this would be Tessema’s last game, he would want to go out in a blaze of glory, and what better way to achieve that than to help hand over the trophy to Wydad in front of over 60,000 mostly ecstatic Moroccan fans on their territory.
And although Koller didn’t say it outright, Tessema’s career record before the game included two Champions League finals — with Ahly ending up on the losing side on both occasions.
Koller was rightfully cautious of the refereeing in general. The first leg game witnessed several controversial decisions taken by Libyan referee Moetaz Ibrahim. Ahly had three penalty shouts, one of which was overturned by the VAR, in addition to Al-Shahat being brought down twice in the penalty area.
Moreover, Ahly players screamed for a direct sending-off for Attiyat Allah who denied Tau a chance to go through on goal after deliberately handling the ball, but the referee decided to show him just the yellow card.
But as it turned out, Tessema, 43, who by Sunday had officiated 38 games in the CAF Champions League since his debut in the 2012-13 season, was not working covertly to please any side. If anything, he let go what should have been a clear red card for Al-Shahat who tugged at Tessema’s jersey so hard out of frustration after Wydad’s goal that the vanishing spray can used to delineate fouls fell out of his pocket. Still, Al-Shahat’s punishment was only a yellow card for dissent.
Al-Shahat’s temper was again evident when he was substituted, kicking the air in exacerbation and gesticulating on the bench.
This was the third time Wydad and Ahly faced each other in a Champions League final, with Wydad winning the two previous encounters. But Wydad, coached by Sven Vandenbroeck of Belgium, could not make it three wins against Ahly and they could not win the crown for a fourth time overall after becoming the first ever Moroccan side to win back to back titles.
The loss also took some of the gloss off of Morocco’s fairy tale World Cup run last year in which they reached the semi-finals, the first Arab and African country to ever go that far.
Ahly’s route to the Champions League title was not as dreamy, however, it was not without drama. They only made it out of the group stage thanks to a late penalty miss by Sudan’s Al-Hilal against Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa.
Knowing full well they were presented with a golden second chance which fell from the skies, starting from the quarter-finals, Ahly made the most of it. They calmly silenced Moroccan outfit Raja Casablanca home and away, then eviscerated former champions Esperance of Tunisia 3-0 in Rades in the semi-finals.
Wydad’s goal in Cairo in the first leg of the final with five minutes left made life for Ahly uncomfortable but the storied team with the pedigree to match were not to be denied in the final of finals.
Ahly reaching the African pinnacle yet again was not the stuff of dreams. It was for the most part, predictable, probable, and very effective.
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi congratulated Ahly on their victory. Al-Sisi lauded the national team’s “historic achievement” as well as the “high spirit and determination” exhibited by the Pharaohs during the final game, according to the presidency.
As African champions, Ahly will receive a hefty $4 million in prize money, almost double last year’s $2.5 million. Runner-ups Wydad will pocket $2 million, while both Espérance and Sundowns are to collect $1.2 million for reaching the semi-finals.
The win allows Ahly to participate in this year’s Club World Cup in Jeddah as Africa’s representative. They have gone to the tournament eight times, finishing third three times. This latest appearance in December could see the Reds earn an extra $1 million to $5 million, depending on where they finish.
Ahly striker Kahraba was named the Champions League top goal scorer with six goals in the campaign, sharing the title with Mamelodi Sundowns’ Peter Shalulile.
It was Koller’s fourth title with Ahly in less than a year as he becomes the first-ever Swiss manager to win the CAF Champions League. Ahly’s official crowning as domestic league champions is seen as a formality.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly