Egypt's desperate clubs resume league action to avoid 'catastrophe'

Hatem Maher , Monday 30 Mar 2015

The league had been suspended since 8 February when 20 Zamalek fans died at a match, leaving many clubs facing a financial meltdown

Soccer fans
Soccer fans hold lit flares at the stand as they watch a match between Egyptian Premier League clubs Zamalek and ENPPI at Air Defence Stadium in a suburb east of Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Canceling Egypt's Premier League for the third time in four seasons would have been hard to handle for the country's desperate clubs, who breathed a sigh of relief after they were given the go-ahead to resume the competition despite some tough conditions.

The ill-fated league kick-starts on Monday after a seven-week hiatus in the wake of another football disaster which left 20 Zamalek fans dead at Cairo's army-owned Air Defence Stadium on 8 February.

The supporters died in a stampede after being tear-gassed by security forces, who sought to prevent them from attending a game against ENPPI on the grounds that they did not have tickets.

The incident, which came almost three years after Egypt's worst-ever football tragedy which left over 70 Ahly fans dead in the coastal city of Port Said, revived a long-running debate about safety measures in domestic football and led to another suspension of the league, which has been bearing the brunt of political turmoil since the toppling of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

The desperate clubs and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) lobbied to pressure the authorities into reversing the suspension amid reports that it could be called off altogether, leaving the cash-strapped outfits trembling with fear.

Their ultimate source of revenue lies in the television deals that are usually struck before a league starts, and losing that income for the rest of the season could see them lose many of their prized assets, as was the case when the competition was cancelled in 2012 and 2013.

"There is no intention to cancel the league because this will lead to huge financial losses. We should bear in mind that the player contracts this season are worth around LE600 million," EFA spokesman Mahmoud El-Shamy told Reuters last month, one day after the Cairo disaster.

Many players and football officials pleaded with the authorities to resume the league, warning of a "catastrophe" should they fail to do so. The reluctant government eventually bowed to pressure but the interior ministry set some tough conditions for the competition's resumption, including staging all games in daylight.

With the temperature getting higher as summer approaches, many clubs have voiced concerns over that particular condition but they are unlikely to take their complaints further.

Extra motive   

Zamalek, who have lived in the shadows of their more illustrious rivals Ahly since winning the last of their 11 league titles in 2004, have an extra motive to end their barren run.

Their players vowed to claim the title to honour the victims of the Cairo football disaster, who scrambled through a barbed wire cage to enter the stadium.

"The league's return won't make us forget the Zamalek martyrs. We are determined to win the title for their sake," said Zamalek striker Khaled Qamar.

The White Knights looked well-equipped to end their lengthy drought before the league stoppage, with many of their close-season arrivals blossoming in the first half of the season as they moved top.

The likes of Burkinabe defender Mohamed Koffi and striker Bassem Morsi quickly won over the demanding fans with a series of impressive displays, with the former proving a rock-solid centre half and the latter moving top of the club's scorers chart with eight goals in 15 appearances.

Caretaker coach Mohamed Salah has steadied the ship following the shocking departure of Portuguese coach Jaime Pacheco, who left in an abrupt manner after falling out with outspoken chairman Mortada Mansour, and the club moved swiftly to name former Porto manager Jesualdo Ferreira as his successor.

Although Ahly are embarking on a rebuilding phase following the retirement of some key players as they eye a record-equaling ninth consecutive title, they remain a force to be reckoned with.

Some stuttering displays saw them slip nine points behind Zamalek with a game in hand but they notably improved lately, signaling their intent to challenge their Cairo nemesis until the very end.

Surprise package ENPPI, who held Zamalek to a 1-1 draw in the match that followed February's disaster and are just three points short of the leaders, are also in the hunt, with highly-regarded coach Tarek El-Ashri insisting his side have what it takes to become champions for the first time and end Ahly's hegemony.

Wadi Degla, who are also having a fine season, are likely to push for a Champions League spot as they lie fourth in the table. 

Ailing Ismaily, who started the season with a six-point deduction as a punishment for not paying a former player, will have to do without the league's top scorer John Antwi after the Ghanaian joined Saudi Arabia's Al-Shabab.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)


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