Egypt’s Ahly are back at the FIFA Club World Cup after a seven-year absence. The Red Devils are aiming to go as far as they can in a tournament in which they have previously struggled to make an impact.
The team heads into the tournament with previous experience which is considered one of their major assets. The Egyptian club is all set for their sixth appearance in the competition, determined to improve on their best ever result: third place in 2006.
African champions Ahly arrived in Qatar on 31 January where they were welcomed at Hamad Airport by Egyptian expatriates despite strict coronavirus rules, cheering loudly for the players and club president and former superstar Mahmoud Al-Khatib.
The Club World Cup will be staged with strict measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, the Qatari organisers declared before the start of the tournament which will be closed to overseas fans.
The tournament gets underway today, Thursday 4 February with spectator numbers capped at 30 per cent of capacity at each of the two 40,000-seat grounds which will host the games.
“Fans will have to undergo rapid PCR or antigen tests up to 72 hours before each match. If it comes out negative they are allowed to receive their ticket,” said Abdul Wahab Al-Musleh, sports affairs adviser to Qatar’s Health Ministry.
Social distancing, mask wearing and use of Qatar’s contract tracing app and sanitisers will be mandatory, he added, during a media briefing in Doha.
International fans will be unable to attend because of Qatar’s virus mitigation measures, and there will be no public events including fan zones.
Today, Tigres UANL of Mexico and South Korean Ulsan Hyundai FC meet at 17:00 local time at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium while Ahly will face hosts Al-Duhail at 21:00 at the Education City Stadium.
A total of 138 players are expected to head to Qatar, as each squad comprises 23-man lists.
After finishing their first training, Ahly goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Shennawi, forward Hussein Al-Shahat and Ahly’s South African Coach Pitso Mosomani spoke to fifa.com about their expectations and hopes for the event.
With his world finals experience in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 32-year-old Al-Shennawi knows what to expect in his bid to help his club side negotiate that first obstacle and then ensure they go as far as they can in the tournament.
“We’ve got Al-Duhail first up, which will be a special game because they’re an Arab team playing at home and in front of their own fans,” he said. “We’re expecting a tough match.
“Al-Duhail are a strong side with some quality players. They’ve made some big signings, bringing in a forward and a defender. We’ve watched their last few games in the Qatari league and we know it’s going to be a big battle. We need to prepare the best we can so we can put in a good performance.”
Al-Shennawi sees his presence at the Club World Cup as something of a personal milestone: “Playing for my country at the World Cup and then taking part at the Club World Cup is a major achievement for me.
“They’re two competitions that every player dreams of taking part in. It’s an added responsibility for me. Playing at an international tournament like the Club World Cup takes a lot of determination and hard work. Ahly, the players and the coaching staff have all made a huge effort to be at this competition.”
If they can get past the hosts, Al-Shennawi and his team-mates will set up a historic meeting with European champions Bayern Munich, who won the Club World Cup back in 2013, the last time Ahly featured in the competition.
As the skipper acknowledged, however, it is too soon to talk about the German giants. “The most important thing for us is to win our opening match against Al-Duhail, which won’t be easy.
“Qualifying for the second round and taking on Bayern Munich would be amazing for us, the players, because we’ll be taking on the best team in Europe. It’s what every player dreams of.”
Nevertheless, Al-Shennawi is hungry for more than just that at Qatar 2020: he wants to help Ahly become the first African side to win the FIFA Club World Cup.
“The team wants to go as far as it can and have a good tournament,” he said. “We’ll take it game by game to achieve our objective. My goal is to win the title. If we want to be world champions, we’ll need to stick together and be a unit.”
Egyptian forward Al-Shahat had a tournament to remember with Al-Ain at the FIFA Club World Cup in the UAE in 2018. The host side knocked out River Plate in a breathtaking semi-final at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium before losing out to Real Madrid in the final.
Al-Shahat is now poised for a return to the competition, this time with Ahly following their African Champions League triumph. “The Club World Cup is a great competition,” he said. “I played in the final with Al-Ain and it was an experience that I can’t really put into words.
“I’ll never forget that game against Real Madrid and I hope I can do the same with Ahly this year and go on to win the title,” he added.
Given his Club World Cup experience, Al-Shahat knows what Ahly can expect at Qatar 2020. “As the champions of Africa, we’ll be up against champions from other continents. Every player dreams of playing in this tournament. All the teams are strong and all the players want to showcase their skills. We have a good squad. We’re united and want to achieve something here.”
Looking ahead to the Red Devils’ second-round tie with Al-Duhail, the Egyptian forward said: “Al-Duhail are a strong team and have some quality players. We’re preparing well for them because we respect them and I’m sure they respect us too. They’ll be playing on home soil, in front of their fans. We know all their players and we know their strengths and weaknesses. The coaching staff and the players know what to expect and we hope we can beat them and advance in the tournament.”
Ahly Coach Mosimane opined about the tournament. “Al-Duhail are a good side. They won the Stars League in Qatar, which is very competitive, with good sides like Al-Sadd, who are coached by Xavi and who have a great Algerian forward too (Baghdad Bounedjah).
“Al-Duhail won the Qatari league because they’ve got some excellent players who’ve shown what they can do. [Mario] Mandzukic played for them until recently too. Now that we know they’re our opponents, we’ll have a good look at them.
“We can’t choose the opposition in the Club World Cup draw. We have to be ready to play who we’re drawn against.
“Every team and every coach believe they have the ability to win the trophy, but the fact is that it won’t be easy against opponents of the calibre of Bayern Munich and the Copa Libertadores winners. You look at them and you realise how big a job we’ve got.
“We’ve got excellent players and everyone speaks about Mohamed ‘Afsha’ Magdi. That’s maybe because he got us to the Club World Cup with his goals, though he couldn’t have done it without his team-mates. He’s an Egypt international and we’re delighted to have a player of his quality and goal-scoring ability. He’s a playmaker and helps us create space too.”
Mosimane was on duty at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016, when he coached South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns.
“If we beat Al-Duhail, the tournament hosts, we’ll face Bayern Munich, which won’t be easy,” said Mosimane. “That said, we won’t have anything to lose if we get that far. We need to be at our best and fly the flag for the continent, the country and all the fans, so that they can be proud of us. If we give it our all on the pitch and we lose, we can go away satisfied because the level is so high.
“We’re a good side and we believe we can do big things. We’ve got the Qatari team in our first match and then we’ll see what happens. We hope we get the chance to face Bayern. We’d be delighted to play them and it would be an honour for us. There wouldn’t be any pressure on us either, because they’re the team who beat Barcelona.
“Ahly have played in the Club World Cup, but not with this generation of players. They did it when Mohamed Abou Trika was around but they couldn’t make the final. It’s a different team now, a different time, and it’s been seven years since they last took part in the Club World Cup.
“Every team has a chance. It’s 90 minutes and we can spring a surprise if we give it all we’ve got on match day. Football is a wonderful sport in which the unexpected can happen and we should take inspiration from what TP Mazembe did.”
Turning his attention to the other sides in the competition, Mosimane said: “Brazilian teams are always strong. I’ve seen a few Ulsan Hyundai games. They’re a good side as well. The standard’s going to be high.”
The Ahly coach is in no doubt about the importance of the FIFA Club World Cup. “I was here with my coaching staff from the Sundowns and I remember just how tough the competition is. It’s a FIFA tournament and in terms of organisation you can’t compare it with any other competition. Everything is amazing: the hotels, the travel arrangements, everything.
“Qatar is a great country too. When we played in 2016, the team from South America didn’t even make it to the final.”
Wrapping things up, Mosimane sent a message to the Ahly fans: “Our supporters believe we’ve got a chance. They always back us and push us on and we’ll give our all for them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly