Even though he was at the helm for only two months, everyone and his mother knew that Ahly’s Portuguese coach Ricardo Soares would very soon be shown the exit. Soares, 47, had become coach of the Cairo football club in June to keep alive hopes of winning the Egyptian Premier League title. Ahly eventually finished third, where they were when Soares took charge, which marked the first time they missed out on the top two in 30 years.
A rash of serious injuries, a dramatic drop in form of several of the team’s stars, the introduction of many not very impressive rookies and a torrid pace set in the second half of the season by eventual league winners Zamalek had Soares receiving the short end of the stick almost from the start of his tenure in Egypt.
Still, Soares either genuinely didn’t see the axe falling or was in deep denial. Just before last week’s final game of the season, Soares was asked whether it would be his last as head coach of Ahly.
“Why would it be? It’s the last game of this season,” he said. “But now we prepare for the next.”
That was on Monday. On Wednesday he was fired.
The departure was amicable. “The club would like to thank Soares and his assistants for their service and we wish them all the best in the future,” Ahly said in a statement.
But Soares largely disappointed those who had hired him. He was brought in to rescue Ahly’s season and keep them in the title race, however, Ahly could not prevent arch-rivals Zamalek from winning the league for the second consecutive season.
Under Soares, Ahly played 17 games, winning in nine, drawing in five and losing in three. The result was only good enough for a rare third place finish for the club that has won an Egyptian record 42 league crowns.
In the end, Zamalek finished with 77 points, Pyramids 71 and Ahly 70. The difference between Ahly and Zamalek could have been a resounding 10 points had Zamalek and Ahly not lost and won respectively in their last inconsequential match.
Soares had signed a two-year deal with Ahly after leading top-flight Portuguese club Gil Vicente to fifth place in 2021-22. He paid €250,000 to release himself from his Gil Vicente contract and must now be doubting the wisdom of such a move.
He arrived in Egypt a duck out of water, moving abroad for the first time in his career. An early loss to title rivals Pyramids was a major setback and Soares never fully recovered. Shortly after he took charge, Ahly lost the 2021 Cup title to Zamalek.
Despite the setbacks, Soares insisted to the end that he would be staying and would prepare for next season with the youngsters he had brought in, even though he had publicly chafed at the idea by Ahly’s board to present so many new faces all at once.
From the start, Soares was also at a distinct disadvantage, being unfavourably and perhaps unfairly compared to his predecessor the South African coach Pitso Mosimane who in less than two years led Ahly to two African Champions League titles - albeit losing out in this season’s final to Wydad Casablanca - and securing two consecutive third-placed finishes at the FIFA Club World Cup.
The Cairo giants are currently looking for a new manager for the new season, with ex-Egypt manager Carlos Queiroz and Mosimane linked with the job. Vahid Halilhodzic, who was fired by Morocco in August after taking them to the World Cup, is also reportedly on the short list.
Another member of Ahly left last week, but Walid Suleiman, the attacking midfielder, was a much more popular figure.
Suleiman, 37, announced in February his retirement from football at the end of the current season after 11 years with Ahly.
Dubbed ‘the magician’ by Ahly supporters, Suleiman was picked from petroleum club Enppi for LE8 million. He turned out to be a bargain, helping Ahly to 21 local and African championships, in addition to the bronze in the FIFA Club World Cup twice.
The veteran playmaker scored 75 goals and assisted in more than 50 in more than 300 matches in all competitions. Though capped only 26 times, Suleiman was a fan favourite with his precision passes and ability to advance his teammates up the field.
Injury kept Suleiman from playing in Ahly’s final league match against Ceramica, preventing him from making his last official appearance in the red shirt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.