Before Real Madrid vs Ahly 2023 there was Real Madrid vs Ahly 2001.
That year, the storied Spanish franchise visited Egypt to participate in celebrations marking Ahly as the African “Club of the Century”.
Real were kings of Europe a record eight times, but 2001 was not one of the club’s best years. They had endured their worst domestic league performance under Vicente del Bosque’s management, finishing only third in the league standings as well as losing the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu to unheralded Deportivo La Coruna. And they were narrowly knocked out by Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, their signature tournament and the reason for their enormous fame and success.
However, they had begun a new policy of signing the world’s greatest players, one every year, under new president Florentino Perez with a goal of making Real Madrid the most fashionable club in the world. They were dubbed the Galacticos.
They had just augmented their strike force by signing French midfield star Zinedine Zidane for a then record $90 million four-year contract from Juventus on instalments. Zidane had just signed for Real, making his appearance in Cairo a pleasant surprise.
A flag-waving crowd of nearly 70,000 in Cairo Stadium saw Ahly weather an early storm as Claude Makelele went close for Real at the start of the match. Roberto Carlos let fly with one of his trademark cannon shots which goalkeeper Essam Al-Hadari did well to even see it.
Zidane whiffed at a clear opportunity in front of the goal.
Ahly came out for the second half determined to push back Real. They created several chances with Alaa Ibrahim and Khaled Bebo hitting the bar.
The goal came 10 minutes after the break after Bebo launched a counter attacking solo run before passing to Hossam Ghali who rounded Real goalkeeper Cesar before slipping the ball to newly signed Nigerian import Ibrahim Sunday who slotted into an empty net.
Real’s two superstars Zidane and Luis Figo failed to make an impression and were both substituted in the second half.
Zidane, Figo, Carlos, Raul, Makelele, Salgado, captain Fernando Hierro and all the other dream team members went down 1-0.
Manuel Jose of Portugal, who would go on to become Ahly’s winningest coach ever, marked his first victory with Ahly.
Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior
Real could have been excused for they had gone to visit the Pyramids that hot August summer day. More often than not, visiting teams to Egypt rarely exhibit much fire power. Friendly encounters many times degenerate to yawning performances by visitors often spend only 24 hours in the country and are often too weary to give their all after the perennial visit to the Pyramids and the other Egyptian landmarks they like to see, all on match day.
Ahly deservedly won the game but Real players of their quality were that day clearly not at their best following a full day of sightseeing duty that Saturday. The club had also refused to train in Cairo.
The win evened the score between the two teams. Real Madrid’s first visit to Egypt was in 1961. The then European champions, in Cairo to mark Zamalek’s golden jubilee, easily won 4-1.
A photographer for the daily Al-Ahram took over 100 photos of the match. Folklore has it that the legendary Di Stefano supposedly appeared in every single one of them. Either Di Stefano had superhuman physical fitness or the photographer was in awe of him so much that he included Di Stefano in all his snaps.
Folklore story No 2. Real’s Puskas, arguably the greatest goal getter ever, hit the left post when granted a penalty. He later complained to reporters that the goal was not the mandatory width. Sure enough, when measurements were later taken from post to post, it was discovered that they were indeed an inch too close to each other.
Forty years later, Ahly’s stunning upset of Real Madrid, albeit a friendly, went down as the finest hour of Egyptian club football.
At the least it arguably matched the famous 1966 victory by crosstown rival Zamalek against West Ham 5-1 in Cairo. The English team had on their roster Wembley World Cup winners Bobby Moore and Geoffrey Hurst.
The Club World Cup game between record four-time champions of the tournament Real Madrid and Ahly, third place finishers three times, was scheduled to be played on Wednesday 8 February. When Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the match, a semi-final contender, had not yet been played.
While Real were odds-on favourite to reach the final, that friendly of more than 20 years ago suggests that Ahly’s chances should not be dismissed out of hand.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly