Al-Ahly and Zamalek showcase African football

ON FRIDAY November 27, Cairo hosts the 2020 African Champions League final between two of the Egyptian capital’s major clubs, Zamalek and Al-Ahly. Global interest in the competition has risen over the past few years, but the intense passion that usually defines the final may be missing owing to the ban on fans, due to the pandemic and fears of crowd violence. 

Despite the restrictions, there’s still that little bit of extra spice as the derby is Africa’s oldest football rivalry. Covid-19 has impacted both teams, including Al-Ahly’s Walid Soliman, Mahmoud Abdelmoneim and Salah Gomaa, and Zamalek’s Mahmoud Hamdy who have all contracted the virus.

Across African football, the pandemic has left its mark. Even big clubs like Al-Ahly have had to consider wage cuts of up to 50%. With a lack of matches, some leagues have been badly hit due to low basic wages that would normally be enhanced by expenses and win bonuses. In Egypt, there have been calls for the rich to bail-out struggling smaller clubs. 

Al-Ahly and Zamalek, Egypt’s biggest clubs, have won the competition 13 times between them and have been involved in another six finals as losers. No African club has won the Champions League more than Al-Ahly, whose eight victories started in 1982. They last won the competition in 2013 and were runners-up in 2018 and 2017. Zamalek have been champions five times, the most recent being in 2002. They were last in the final in 2016.

Al-Ahly are actually the second most successful club in the world after Real Madrid in terms of international titles. They have won 24 in addition to 42 Egyptian championships and 36 Egypt Cups. They were Egyptian Premier League champions in 2019-20, finishing 21 points ahead of second-placed Zamelak. Al-Ahly, some years ago, revealed that their ambition was to become the Real Madrid of African football.

The club is aiming to increase its worldwide presence, a difficult task for clubs from developing football regions such as Africa and Asia, who struggle to win visibility in mature football markets. Al-Ahly appointed the highly-rated South African coach Pitso Mosimane, no stranger to the African Champions League having won the trophy in 2016 with Mamalodi Sundowns, and since his arrival, the profile of the club has increased significantly. 

Al-Ahly are also the richest club in the continent of Africa, with a net worth of US$ 28 million. Another Cairo neighbour Pyramids (US$ 22 million) and Zamalek (US$ 18 million) are also in the top 10.

Clubs like Al-Ahly and Zamalek are ambitious and well organised, but generally across Africa, the game has to step-up and further professionalise. Shawn Mubiru of Uganda’s SC Villa, told the audience at the World Football Summit that football is not universally seen as a business in Africa. “Football is a product and a business and we must think more strategically about it. Clubs need to better organise and build their brands. It is not just about money, it is about improving our organisation,” he said. There is widespread belief that African football has to develop a business model that drives greater levels of income, thought more engagement with fans and more commercial partnerships.

There is broad concern, though, that African domestic football cannot progress because of the so-called talent drain, which not only deprives local clubs from home grown players, but in the case of those with dual eligibility, it also means African nations can lose their best players to other countries.

Nigeria leads the way in exporting talent, some 370 players are currently playing outside in leagues outside of their domestic competition and of the top 90 leagues, Nigerian players are present in 67%, with turkey being the biggest takers. Senegal has over 200 playing abroad and is present in more than 50% of the leagues. France has more than 40 Senegalese professionals. France has long had a strong appetite for African players and focuses particularly on Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Mali, as well as Senegal.

African players have played a key role at a number of top European clubs – Liverpool’s 2019 UEFA Champions League included three players – Salah (Egypt), Mané (Senegal) and Matip (Cameroon) – from African nations. Indeed, Salah and Mané both feature in the top 10 most valuable players in many lists and are valued at € 125 million apiece by KPMG’s Football Benchmark.

There’s no doubting Africa can develop top talent, but football struggles to gain credibility around transparency and integrity issues. Only recently, FIFA banned the head of the Confederation of African Football, Ahmad Ahmad, for five years due to the result of an ethics investigation by the governing body. FIFA said there were irregularities around CAF finances as well as concerns over CAF’s dealings with the sports equipment company, Tactical Steel. Ahmad is appealing the decision, which comes after he ended FIFA’s involvement in the running of CAF at their Cairo headquarters. He called it a political ploy and added: “I challenge the sanction…beyond my case, it is the self-determination of football in Africa that is under attack.”

However, there will be no shortage of candidates to take over the role of president. South African mining magnate, Patrice Motsepe, who is currently president of Mamelodi Sundowns, is ranked Africa’s 10th richest person and has thrown his hat in the ring. The election will take place in March 2021.

Meanwhile, the CAF Champions League final promises to be an interesting climax to the 2019-20 competition. Al-Ahly, 25 followers on social media, are ranked as the top club side in Africa, Zamalek (13 million followers) are ranked fourth. They are the top two in the Egyptian Premier League and they are making history as the first Champions League final to involve two teams from the same country. It is also the first single-game final since 1965 – a sign of the times. But it deserves the very top billing for this is the African equivalent of Real Madrid versus Barcelona or Liverpool versus Manchester City. Moreover, if an African football club is ever going to make a splash globally, it could well be Al Ahly or Zamalek.

Photo: PA

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