Having appeared in five Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League finals in the last eight years, the players and staff of Cairo’s Al Ahly might normally be expected to look at the build-up, the planning and their likely victory with a smoothly choreographed sense of routine.
But in modern Egypt, where Africa and the Middle East’s most successful and vaunted club today seek to gild further their long list of accomplishments, little is routine, even less in the country’s most popular sport.
The venue for the second leg of the final, Al Ahly against South Africa’s Orlando Pirates, has already been the subject of much toing and froing, with a decision on where today’s fixture would take place settled only six days ago.
The club have gained a partial compromise from the Egyptian government in that the match – poised at 1-1 after last weekend’s Soweto leg – will be staged in the capital.
But it will not be staged at the 70,000 Cairo International Stadium, site of so many triumphant, and atmospheric nights for Al Ahly, but at the smaller home of Arab Contractors, some eight miles away.
Al Ahly’s recent “home” in the competition has been neither, but rather distant El Ghouna, a resort town on the Red Sea.
Over the course of the last three tumultuous years, large gatherings of any sort have made Egyptian state security chiefs anxious, large crowds of football followers in Cairo above all.
In the course of the country’s dramatic power shifts, its 2011 revolution and subsequent counter-revolts, the mobilisation of so-called “ultras” as a powerful force to challenge to the establishment has been conspicuous and tensions between them and the police and army edgy and dangerous.
During the protests that led to the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, members of groups like Ahlawy, displaying their Al Ahly paraphernalia, and of the “White Knights”, a supporters group of Zamalek, Al Ahly’s traditional Cairo rivals, were at the forefront of clashes with police in Tahrir Square and beyond.
A year later came the tragedy of Port Said, in which 74 people died, most of them associated with Al Ahly, during a riot at a match between Al Masry and Al Ahly.
The subsequent trial found security forces complicit in the horrific violence.
If there had been any notion football could live cocooned from the upheavals affecting Egyptian society, it was brutally removed in Port Said.
That night, many of those under attack sought refuge in the away team’s dressing-room, from which the story is told that one supporter, bearing fatal injuries was being held in the arms of Mohammed Aboutrika, Al Ahly’s gifted international striker, and he said to Aboutrika: “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” before collapsing.
Aboutrika and several other players announced they would retire from football, traumatised, after Port Said.
Though Aboutrika, among others, did return to play, and will spearhead Al Ahly’s attempt to gain an eighth senior pan-African club title on Sunday, they do so with a heightened sense of their role as actors in a broader narrative than just the sports arena.
In one sense, the success of the Al Ahly team in the CAF Champions League in spite of disruptions is a stirring story of determination in the face of adversity that sport every so often extracts from conflict zones.
Across the Arab Spring there were a few: the Libya national team’s qualifying for the 2012 African Cup of Nations finals, despite the civil war going on at home, the impossibility of their playing matches in Libya, and the courage of some of their players in committing to the rebel side in the conflict.
Across the Middle East you find heartening sporting tales from war zones, notably the Iraqi national football teams’, who in the last destructive decade have found the skill and strength to reach the semi-finals of the Olympic Games, win the senior Asian Cup and finish in the top four at the Under 20 World Cup.
The Egyptian national team, though, have fared otherwise, and seen swagger turn to stumbles against the backdrop of revolution.
With a spine formed around the Al Ahly machine – winners of the Champions League in 2005, 2006 and 2008 – Egypt’s Pharaohs won an unprecedented three successive African Cup of Nations between 2006 and 2010.
The Mubarak regime used to gleefully tag onto their glory. But failure – via a tempestuous series of matches against Algeria, culminating in a play-off defeat – to reach the 2010 World Cup meant Aboutrika’s generation would not show themselves off on the greatest global stage.
Next week, Egypt prepare for the second leg of their play-off for a spot in Brazil 2014, but it is hard to summon optimism. They lost the first leg 6-1 to Ghana.
That decline is easily explained: a country in upheaval; a league suspended, then cancelled for a year after the Port Said tragedy.
Equally, that is why it seems to remarkable that Al Ahly were able to win the Champions League last year on the back of no domestic football, and that, thanks to a cunning Aboutrika free kick in Soweto eight days ago, they take on Pirates in Cairo with a marginal advantage – an away goal – in defence of that crown.
But they are up against a tough team today, and a club who would instinctively recognise the warrior narrative of Al Ahly’s recent past.
Pirates have a relatively short history in African competitions but they have won this one before, memorably, which is why they carry a single star on the breasts of their black jerseys, just about the skull and crossbones of their emblem.
It denotes the only victory by a South African club in the continent’s principal club competition: Pirates achieved it in 1995, the year after democracy came to one of Africa’s most complicated nations and it would be a success celebrated in the context of new, free, South Africa boldly entering into the wider world after decades of sanctions imposed against a state that had discriminated against its citizens on the basis of race.
Orlando, a district of the sprawling township of Soweto was for most of Pirates’ 75-year history at the frontline of the struggle against that discrimination, the system of apartheid.
Many of the players taking the field today for the “Buccaneers” were born in the 1980s, several in the urban townships which in that period were just about the most notorious civil conflict zones in the world.
A quarter of a century later, they come to Cairo as representatives of the wealthiest league in Africa.
But they are still underdogs today, up against an Al Ahly with unusual sprit, great tradition and a hardy attitude to setbacks.
Five cases of football and war
The Christmas Truce: In December 24, 1914, German and British troops in the trenches around Ypres unofficially suspended First World War hostilities. They celebrated the temporary rapprochement with a game of football.
Honduras-El Salvador: The so-called “Soccer War”. Tensions between the two countries, building up over immigration issues across their shared border, escalated when the countries’ national teams were involved in a head-to-head confrontation for a place at the 1970 World Cup.
Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade: In the penultimate season of the old Yugoslavia league, and just after elections had signalled the will of most Croatians to move to independence, there was violence, culminating in a pitch invasion, at the meeting of Croat club Dinamo and Serbia’s Red Star. Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban kicked a policeman who he saw attacking a Dinamo fan.
Iraq: Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s national teams have consistently overcome a disrupted league, and everyday violence that has extended to fatal bomb attacks at football grounds. They reached the semi-finals at the 2004 Olympics, won the 2007 Asian championship, while the U20s made the last four of this year’s World Cup.
Afghanistan: Two months ago, Afghanistan won the South Asian Championship, a watershed moment for a sport damaged by various conflicts since the war with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, and marginalised under the Taliban. In August, neighbours Pakistan crossed the fraught border to play a match in Afghanistan for the first time since 1977. The hosts won 3-0.
Pirates coach optimistic despite two suspended players
Orlando Pirates will be missing two of the players who have been most influential in driving the South African club to their second ever CAF Champions League final, as they face Al Ahly in the second leg in Cairo on Sunday.
The yellow cards received by defender Happy Jele and midfielder Andile Jali in the first leg, a 1-1 draw, both brought with them suspensions, given that the pair had been booked earlier in the competition.
But despite the setback, Roger de Sa, the Pirates coach, is confident. Believing his side have been written off in the past, he said: “We may have been a bit of closed book to other teams at the outset, but a lot of people believe in us now.”
The prize is a big one, even for the champions of the richest domestic league in Africa — the South African Premier League — at US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) for the winners, and then a ticket to the Club World Cup in Morocco next month.
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