Nationalism, desertion and devotion: Why Al-Ahly vs Zamalek is more than a game

In the land of Pharaohs, a ritual as immense as the pyramids and mysterious as the Sphinx: the Al Ahly vs Zamalek derby. Alex Olliver reported for the April 2003 FourFourTwo magazine...

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In a city as crowded and polluted as modern day Cairo it is easy to lose any sensation that you are in the midst of the world’s oldest civilisation. Cairo houses a quarter of Egypt’s 70 million people alongside the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramids, still standing after four and half millennia.

It's a Middle Eastern city where Christian and Muslim live together in something close to harmony. A city that can been seen from space not because of any mammoth feat of human ingenuity but thanks to the enormous cloud of pollution that pinpoints it on satellite pictures.

Cairo’s exploding population has already engulfed a dozen towns that were once a desert away from the capital, and within 20 years the Great Pyramids will no longer be a coach ride from the city but in the heart of downtown.

The population of Greater Cairo recently passed 20 million

While the unrivalled chaos of the last century has left a city coming to grips with its collapsing economy, a youth culture trying to drag its elders into the 21st Century, and all the inherent issues that having Libya and Israel as your immediate neighbours brings, one thing has remained a constant – a footballing rivalry that can genuinely claim to dwarf Barça-Madrid and Boca-River.

Beyond fanatical

It is part football match, part political rally, part history lesson and generally a good excuse for the locals to hurl rocks at each other

Al Ahly vs Zamalek goes beyond fanatical. It is part football match, part political rally, part history lesson and generally a good excuse for the locals to hurl rocks at each other.

Throughout most of the Egyptian league calendar Al Ahly and Zamalek appear to be no more than successful teams in an average league. Neither club have a huge home ground: Zamalek’s Hassan Helmi stadium holds a shade under 40,000 while the larger club, Al Ahly, paradoxically hosts less than 20,000 in their Mokhtar el Tetch.

Yet come derby day the supporters abandon their homes to descend upon Cairo’s 100,000-seater national stadium for Likaa El Kemma ‘the Meeting of the Best’. What the contest may lack in technical quality and international superstars, it makes up for with unbridled obsession.

Cario International Stadium

For 50 weeks a year, Cairo’s tour guides, cab drivers, strangers in the street, hawkers selling plastic pyramids do little but regurgitate tales about pharaohs and mummies, but for two weeks surrounding the match, any excuse to talk about football is seized.

I’ve done 14 or 15 Old Firm matches and even they don’t come close to this. I genuinely believe that this is as big as it gets...

- Scottish World Cup ref Hugh Dallas

Here, as in many places around the world, English football is an international language, “ah... Beckman, Manchesta Uniteed”. But get Egyptians onto the subject of Al-Ahly vs Zamalek and you see them as they were decades ago as wide-eyed children.

When no less an expert than Scotland’s World Cup referee and Ahly-Zamalek veteran Hugh Dallas refers to the game as “bigger than the Old Firm,” you know that it has to be a wee bit special. “You just don’t realise quite how big it is until you see it for yourself,” he enthuses. “I’ve done 14 or 15 Old Firm matches and even they don’t come close to this. I genuinely believe that this is as big as it gets...”

Nationals against all-comers

Football arrived in Epygt during British rule a century ago. Although none of the English clubs survive from that era, Zamalek was formed to represent the expatriates of the time.

Originally founded in 1911 as Kaser-el-nil (Place on the Nile), in 1923 the club was renamed Al Mukhatalat, meaning ‘Mixed’, signifying Egyptians and Europeans playing together, representing the idea of Egypt as a conduit between Europe and Arabia. 

Meanwhile, Al Ahly was founded in 1909, their name meaning ‘national’, the club coming to represent students and the rising nationalist movement that craved an independent Egyptian republic.

In World War Two, tensions were rising to unprecedented levels. Although both clubs had tried to retain an apolitical veneer, when King Farouk, who all too frequently used football as his PR tool, leant his considerable patronage to Mukhatalat there could be no denying the club’s political allegiances.

King Farouk knew the value of PR

When Farouk was deposed in 1952, the league was suspended and the club was forced to change its name once again – reflecting its affluent roots, to Zamalek, after Cairo’s wealthy island district in the Nile.

The political seesaw having soared its way, Ahly appointed the newly founded Republic of Egypt’s new ruler General Gamal Abdal Nasser as club president in 1954. Years of bitter struggle followed.

As Zamalek struggled to keep up with Ahly’s dominance, the rivalry became less a sporting contest and more about politics. And just to sharpen things up, Ahly established a permanent home for themselves in the heart of the Zamalek district. The enemies were now sharing an island less than three miles square.

A 1966 derby was halted as the army stormed the stadium; the ensuing riot caused deaths and over 300 injuries

Events reached crisis point in 1966 when a game between the two was halted as the army stormed the stadium. In the ensuing riot over 300 people were injured and an unspecified number killed. Just a few months later the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War broke out and the league was suspended.

Normal service wouldn’t be resumed until well after 1973’s Yom Kippur War, Ahly immediately re-establishing their superiority, winning seven of the next eight titles.

Zamalek brighten the night sky during their Champions League game

In fact, when Ismaily sneaked the title last year it was only the fourth time since the Yom Kippur War that one of the Cairo giants hadn’t been crowned champions. During this time Ahly had not only won 18 out of 27 league titles, but had also secured three African Champions Leagues and four African Cup Winners’ Cups.

As the century closed, Ahly received almost unanimous support across the continent when they were voted African Team of the Century. No guesses as to which was the only club to challenge the vote.

NEXT: What divides the fans (it's not religion)