Why Zamalek are champions

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 30 Aug 2022

A wily coach, some outstanding rookies and a lethal trio of attackers gave the Cairo football club their second consecutive league title, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani


Even die-hard fans would be hard put to remember everything that happened in the 2021-2022 Egyptian football league season, so terribly long and disjointed it was. What began in October last year ended nearly in September this year.

But the two defining features of this protracted season will be indelibly marked in the minds of even the most casual observers for years and probably decades to come: the electric performance of eventual champion Zamalek and the extraordinary collapse of their once all-conquering crosstown rival Ahly.

For Zamalek, it is their second successive league crown, with 77 points and one game left at the time of writing, six more than second place Pyramids and 10 more than Ahly.

But that’s only half the story. Though the defending champions, they were not expected to go all the way again. They were in the midst of a two-window transfer ban by FIFA for an illegal new deal, had a leaky defense and an offensive that had more bark than bite.

Early on in the season, Ahly claimed bragging rights by drubbing Zamalek 5-3 (at one time it was 5-1), the most goals ever scored in the famed Cairo derby and a warning shot by Ahly that they were bent on recapturing the league which they had won 42 times as opposed to Zamalek’s 13.

For the next several months, the teams would win their fair share of matches but both hit rough patches which would prevent either of them from pulling away outright.

Both made coaching changes that would alter the trajectory of the race for the rest of the season. Zamalek’s would be a games-changer; Ahli’s would be ruinous.

Result: Back-to-back league triumphs for Zamalek for the first time since 2004.

Result: Ahly finished out of the top two for the first time in 30 years.

Even though Zamalek won the league with three games remaining, as opposed to just one match last season, this year’s victory was tougher - which made it all the more sweeter.

Zamalek’s season started in earnest in March with the departure of French coach Patrice Carteron.

Enter Jesualdo Ferreira as the new man but not so new for he had led Zamalek to a rare domestic double in 2015.

The Portuguese, 76, took over a disheveled team and turned it into one of discipline.

Understanding that teams don’t go far without a strong defense, to shore up that porous backline, Ferreira introduced two fresh faces with surprising talent. Tall and lanky central defender Hossam Abdel-Meguid showed flamboyance reminiscent of Ibrahim Youssef, Zamalek’s iconic central defender of the 1980s often described as Egypt’s best ever in the position.

The real revelation was Sayed Mohamed Abdullah, also known as Sayed Neymar although that is a misnomer. Abdullah looks much more like another Brazilian great, Cafu, and also plays in his position of right back. Abdullah played on both ends of the pitch with equal aplomb while his quirky way of running with the ball – short steps in rapid-fire succession – apparently suits him.  

Once Ferreira got the defence right, which rested mightily on the imposing Mahmoud ‘El-Wensh’ Hamdi and the deft touch of left-footed Ahmed Fatouh, the rest fell into place.

The trifecta offensive was led by versatile winger Ahmed ‘Zizo’ Sayed who weaved and darted with ease and was seemingly powered by Eveready batteries. Zizo was by all accounts the season’s MVP with 19 goals and 14 assists which made him the top scorer and the highest assist-maker in the league. The 26 year old with a slight Tom Cruise look boasts a physique of biceps, triceps, abs and a six-pack, like Cristiano Ronaldo in his commercials, making him one of the few players in Egypt who can run full throttle the entire 90 minutes.

Tunisian striker Seifeddine Jaziri was often rarely in the picture but would pop up at the most opportune times, scoring timely, difficult goals when they were needed the most.

Star Moroccan winger Achraf Bencharki left the club for contractual commitments at the end of July, a devastating departure which would be akin to Manchester City losing Kevin De Bruyne for the final stretch of a championship race. Bencharki employed neither speed nor physicality but was a highly skillful dribbler and a calm, deadly finisher. However, Zamalek claimed six successive wins following Bencharki’s exit, testimony to the club that his parting hardly made a difference.

Nor did it matter that contract disputes that were going nowhere forced Zamalek to let go of Tarek Hamed, a rock-solid midfielder and the team leader on the field who had recently added nice passing touches to what could pass for criminal bone-crunching tackles.

Or goalkeeper Mohamed Abou Gabal, one of the stars of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, who was also shown the door.

No matter.

Emam Ashour, a young, brazen and healthy midfielder had a hard shot and a hard way of celebrating goals, whether it was physically taking down a teammate who had just scored, or scaling an iron partition that buckled under his weight as he rushed to the peanut gallery after scoring to share in their joy.  

Mohamed Awwad must have established himself as Egypt’s No 1 goaltender. Sure handed and sharp reflexes in between the sticks he also patrolled his territory as good as any defender, using impeccable timing to thwart long-ball, counter attacks.

Mahmoud Shikabala, at 36 the team’s senior citizen, showed his young teammates and the not so young the way to the trophy. His goal against Pyramids in Zamalek’s 3-0 win did not win the game for his club but it was a trademark Shikabala delivery – a shimmy to the right then the left then uncorking a swerving pile driver to the top right corner of a flailing goalkeeper – that pretty much sealed the fate of Zamalek and Ahly either way that night on 1 August. Everyone knew what Shikabala was going to do once he got the ball and how he was going to score but he did so anyway.

Before that consequential win, Ahly remained in decent position in the standings. By July, should Ahly have won their three postponed matches, they would have been five points ahead of Zamalek and in first place.

But then came the fall. Without a parachute.

In no particular order of importance, an abnormal number of injuries, all at once, decimated the team. Injuries to Mohamed Sherif, Amr Solaya, Akram Tewfik and Hussein Al-Shehat kept them out not just for a match or two but for the rest of the season. Many of the injuries were hamstrings incurred by playing too many matches. Ahly players not only had a 34-game league season to contend with but last year’s unfinished cup as well as this year’s cup. They reached the final of the African Champions League and played in the FIFA Club World Cup. Many are on the national team, thus playing in the Arab Cup in November, the Africa Cup of Nations in January and February and a string of World Cup qualifiers. As the number of games increased, Ahly started looking more and more like an emergency ward.

Related to the tiredness, but not necessarily, came a huge drop in form of several regulars. Sherif, Mohamed Al-Shinnawi, Ali Maloul, Magdi Afsha, Mohamed Hani, Hamdi Fathi, Yasser Ibrahim, Ayman Ashraf and Taher Mohamed all were a shell of their former selves.  

The third blow must have been the mid-season surprise departure of Pitso Mosimane, Ahly’s first and only Sub-Saharan African coach. In his 21 months of managing Ahly, Mosimane was phenomenally successful most of the way, guiding Ahly to two African Champions League titles, one league, one Egypt Cup and a third place finish twice in the 2020 Club World Cup.

But when Ahly accepted Mosimane’s request to step down on 13 June, the club was faltering, oozing points by drawing too many times.

Still, Ahly apparently felt they would not be too affected by his departure. It appears the club’s administration felt 11 grown men on the pitch should be able to see the team through, no matter who the new coach would be.

So the club settled for any coach. Ricardo Soares had never trained a team outside Portugal. Some were in the second division.

The decision proved costly. In the two months he has been in charge Soares has won only eight matches out of 16, drawing five and losing three. Compare the record with that of his compatriot. Ferreira who has now won four titles with the Cairo giants after winning the league title in 2015 and 2022 and the Egypt Cup in 2015 and 2021.

Ahly’s league title hopes were effectively dashed with a half dozen games left. A fan base estimated by some accounts at 70 million reeled. Egypt’s media and social media that demand Ahly emerge victorious in every game, in every championship, poured contempt on the players and their coach.

Surveying the damage, Ahly’s board threw in the towel and opted to play the remaining games with newcomers and those who did not get enough playing time during the season. The decision was as much to chastise the club’s stars as to bring in fresh blood.

But there were no particular standouts. Hardly anybody impressed or was impressed. Predictions that so and so will be a star in a few years were not forthcoming.

To those who excused the youngsters for their modest performance, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe are global superstars and have been for some years. At present they are all of 22 and 23 years of age respectively.

Ahly’s nosedive might have sowed the seeds of division within the storied club. Members of a newly-established company that oversees football affairs in Ahly suddenly stepped down last week with reports indicating that they fell out with the club’s board and chairman Mahmoud Al-Khatib over Soares’ fate.

Speculation is swirling as to whether Ahly will retain the services of Soares next season. To answer the question you have to understand why he was brought in the first place. Because he’s a foreigner? Because he would not be making that many dollars because he’s not a big-name coach? To introduce new faces? Was not going to stay long anyway? The season was scheduled to end on Tuesday 30 August by which time Soares’ immediate future will be determined.

All the while, by the way, Pyramids were lurking in the race, eventually earning a runners-up spot for the first time ever.

But neither Pyramids nor Ahly could stand in the way of Zamalek’s inexorable march to league win No 14. En route to winning last year’s league they embarked on an eight-game winning tear; this year they went two better.

Zamalek also showcased star power. This year many of their players became box office attractions. Nobody could this year be heard saying: “Let’s go to tonight’s match to see Afsha play” or “Let’s turn on the TV to get a look at Mohamed Sherif,” even though they are two of the biggest Ahly stars. What we saw were tens of thousands of Zamalek supporters who this year started to pour in vast numbers into stadiums, increasing exponentially as the finish line approached, to pay to see their players play.

Zamalek’s next test will be the Saudi-Egyptian Super Cup, pitting the club against the champions of the Saudi Pro League Al Hilal. Lusail Stadium, which will host the 2022 World Cup final in Qatar, will host the game on 9 September.

But for now Zamalek and their supporters will savour a season to remember. Even the most anti- Zamalek people grudgingly admit the team played with elegance and finesse not seen this year or many years before by any team.

Zamalek had eye-catching performances. They had flair and passion. They won games and did so with panache, a rare combination on Egypt’s football fields.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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