Headline: Brotherly love takes a back seat for Africa’s battle of the champions
Location: Cairo, Egypt
Article Synopsis: Football rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek is regarded as one of Africa’s fiercest derby.
Opening Paragraph: Ahmed and Mohammad Fahti aren’t just brothers. They’re friends. For most of the year, they’re inseparable… until, that is, Cairo plays to host one of Africa’s keenly-contested football derbies.
Keywords: rivalry, Al Ahly, Zamalek, Egyptian league football
Text: Ahmed and Mohammad Fahti aren’t just brothers. They’re friends. For most of the year, they’re inseparable… until, that is, Cairo plays host to one of Africa’s most keenly-contested football derbies.
“We avoid each other on those days,” says the 30-year-old Ahmed with a shrug and a smile. “I support Zamalek, while my younger brother backs Al Ahly. One of us goes to the game while the other one stays at home. Otherwise we might get a bit over-emotional with each other.
“We don’t want to jeopardize our relationship. We’ve worked out that it’s better for us to discuss the match calmly afterwards, rather than go together to the stadium.”
It’s a passionate rivalry which is duplicated in every café and on every street corner of the Egyptian capital, and one that stretches back for almost a century.
Al Ahly was founded in 1907, shortly before Zamalek. The pair, ranked as the top two African football clubs of the 20th century by the Confederation of African Football, have been at each other’s throats ever since.
No other Egyptian top-flight side comes close to matching their traditions of success. Al Ahly have won the Egyptian league 29 times to Zamalek’s 11, while the two super-clubs have also traded the Egyptian Cup on an almost yearly basis.
Their matches are almost guaranteed to attract capacity crowds of around 75,000 at the Cairo International Stadium, as well as armies of journalists and broadcasters.
Draped in their traditional colours of red for Al Ahly and white for Zamalek, the fans throng to the stadium, walking under a sea of flags and accompanied by blasts on their Vuvuzelas (trumpets) and the incessant beating of drums.
Their rivalry echoes those of so many teams from major cities across the world, like Manchester United and City in England, Real and Atletico Madrid in Spain and Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in Johannesburg in South Africa.
Football violence has never been regarded as a major issue in Egypt but a heavy deployment of police ensures that supporters are kept well apart on these special days. The city authorities have never forgotten the 1970-1 season, when the league programme had to be cancelled after fans clashed at the Al Ahly-Zamalek head-to-head.
Today, though, all is quiet around the National Stadium. The next derby is way into the future.
Some have suggested that Al Ahly’s recent dominance – they have won the last five consecutive league titles, while Zamalek’s only recent success came in the 2008 Egyptian Cup – has diluted the intensity of the teams’ rivalry.
Medhati Shalaby, Head of Media at the Egyptian Football Association, argues: “The rivalry helped the players from both clubs to improve their performance but there’s less competition now. Zamalek are way behind in the league table.”
The fans, though, remain as defiant and dismissive of each other as ever..
Cairo taxi driver Al Mohammad Nasser is Al Ahly through and through. “The only time I ever give Zamalek a thought is when we take them on in the league,” he says. “Otherwise they’re of absolutely no interest to me.”
William Yanni, a waiter at the Sonesta Hotel in the centre of the capital, goes even further.
“My whole life centres around Al Ahly,” he says. “You have to be mad to support Zamalek. My team is arguably the best on the entire African continent.”
Players are rarely allowed to switch from one Egyptian super-club to another. Such treachery would not be forgiven.
Sherif Ashraf is one player who has survived such a transfer. Crucially, though, he was only a youth player with Al Ahly before moving across the city.
“I Left Al Ahly because they never gave me a chance to play,” he recalls. “I had a
problem with my contract and I had to leave. Some fans could not understand but others forgave me.”
The history books reveal that the enmity between the fans has deep roots..
Zamalek was once seen as a club with links to British colonialism, then to King Farouk before his overthrow in 1952.
Al Ahly, meanwhile, translates as ‘The National’, its red strip reflecting the colours of the pre-colonial flag. It was seen as a team representative of Egypt’s desire for independence and freedom from foreign occupation.
Clearly, though, Ahmed and Mohammad are not too concerned with such matters. For whatever reason, they have been drawn to different teams within the same city.
For now, their divided loyalties are forgotten. Ahmed, standing outside Zamalek’s Miit Okba stadium, scratches his beard. It’s time to head for home. He is going to meet up with Mohammad, three years his junior, this evening.
They enjoy each other’s company. Most of the time.
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