Into the top 10 and the cauldron of fervour that is the biggest derby in Egypt...
Al Ahly vs Zamalek is where football meets history and politics, a wholly embraced excuse for Egypt to go mad for a bit.
Formed in 1911, Zamalek represented Cairo’s wealthy expatriates: the club’s early name of Al Mukhatalat (‘Mixed’) signified the combination of Egyptians and Europeans playing together. By contrast, Al Ahly means ‘National’, and from their founding in 1909 the club came to represent the rising nationalism and longing for independence from colonial interference.
The first derby took place in 1917, but things really cranked up in the middle of the last century. On the field, the Egyptian Premier League was born in 1948; off it, King Farouk favoured Mukhatalat – but he was deposed in 1952, and Ahly quickly made the new ruler General Nasser their club president. With the clubs now clearly seen as representing royalism and nationalism, derbies became a focal point for dissent and violence. In 1966 one was halted when the army stormed the stadium and a riot a broke out; the league didn’t properly restart for five years.
Death and destruction
“The rivalry was extended to the stands in the early ‘70s, when violent clashes led to destruction and death,” recalls Egyptian football journalist Youssef Khalifa. “As a result, the league was cancelled for that year. A Molotov cocktail of fiery clashes and explosive match-ups has ensued ever since.”
Among all that, there has been a lot of successful football. Despite the weight of history, to many modern Egyptians the clash of Africa’s two most successful clubs is a fine opportunity for escapism from everyday life. Besides the estimated 50 million domestic TV audience, the game is huge all over North Africa and the Middle East.
It only adds to the interest (and intensity) that the two clubs have enjoyed a near-duopoly over Egyptian football. Of the 56 league titles, Al Ahly have won 37 and Zamalek 12, while Al Ahly have been African champs eight times to Zamalek’s five. Not without reason is it called Likaa El Kemma: ‘Meeting of the Best’.
We predict a riot
Government restrictions on private investment prevent the two teams from attracting big foreign players, but what the fixture lacks in star quality it more than makes up for in incident. Riots, brawls, military intervention, player walk-outs, abandonments: you name it, this game has had it.
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The atmosphere is truly extraordinary. Cairo comes to a standstill on derby day, helped by the fact that all games are played in the neutral national stadium in front of an evenly-split 100,000 crowd. Deafening noise, blinding colour and violence of some sort are guaranteed. As the Scottish World Cup referee Hugh Dallas told FFT in 2003, “You just don’t realise quite how big it is until you see it for yourself.
“I’ve done 14 or 15 Old Firm matches and even they don’t come close to this,” continued Dallas. “I genuinely believe that this is as big as it gets.” The Scotsman one of several overseas referees brought in to take charge of the game since 1996 to ensure impartiality.
Not that it helped much. In 1996, Zamalek walked off the pitch in protest after the French referee sent off one of their players five minutes into the derby, causing the match to be abandoned. They were deducted nine points – the most in the league’s history. The most thrilling football arguably came in the 2007 Egyptian Cup Final when, inspired by club and legend Mohamed Aboutrika, Al Ahly thrice came from behind to win 4-3 in extra-time.
And that’s without mentioning Hossam Hassan, Cairo’s combination of Sol Campbell and Luis Figo. Egypt’s record cap-holder and scorer became a playing legend in two spells for Al Ahly before everything went a bit weird at the turn of the millennium. Al Ahly only offered the 33-year-old legend a one-year extension, while leaning on his twin brother Ibrahim (another cap centurion) to retire. The twins decided instead to join the eternal enemy, sparking several run-ins with the Al-Ahly fans, especially as Hossam led Zamalek to three league titles in four years.
READ THIS: More Than A Game: Al Ahly vs Zamalek
Any idea that this might be a mere parting gesture, akin to Johan Cruyff’s pre-retirement season with Feyenoord, would be firmly rebuffed when Hossam became Zamalek manager in 2009. Freed of the need to run around, he became even more demonstrative as a boss. Among his greatest hits were sparking a brawl involving staff, players and fans and walking over to a stand full of Al-Ahly fans, laying a Zamalek shirt on the ground and kneeling to pray on it. As you do.