Headline: Africa’s ailing super club gambles on foreign exiles
Location: Sonesta Hotel, Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt
Article Synopsis: The Zamalek Sports Club, one of the biggest teams in Africa has experienced a slump in fortunes for the past five yearsand hopes to stem its fall by bringing in foreign talents into the team.
Opening Paragraph: “No, no, no! I’m not speaking to you!” says Henri Michel, storming past a gaggle of reporters and jumping into his sleek black Chrysler.
Keywords: Cairo, Africa, Zamalek, football, League, Champions League, Egypt, Mido, Amr Zaki, Henri Michel, Giza, Pharaohs, Egyptian Football League
AFRICA’S AILING SUPER-CLUB GAMBLES ON FOREIGN EXILES
By OLOLADE ADEWUYI
“No, no, no! I’m not speaking to you!” says Henri Michel, storming past a gaggle of reporters and jumping into his sleek black Chrysler.
The question that everyone wants answered is left hanging in the air – is Egyptian football team Zamalek SC merely going through a bad patch… or is it in the grip of a full-blown crisis?
The behaviour of its French coach suggests that all is not well at the once-mighty club. It is not every day that a man of Michel’s stature is so easily rattled. Clearly, the pressure is on.
Zamalek and Cairo neighbours and bitter rivals Al Ahly have been vying for the title of Africa ’s most feared side for years. The past five seasons, however, have seen Al Ahly crowned as Egyptian champions, while Zamalek have drifted relentlessly down the league table.
Michel, a former coach of France and who has also worked with such sides as Cameroon , Tunisia , Morocco and Ivory Coast , has not been able to halt the rate of decline.
Last season Zamalek flirted with relegation before finishing in sixth place in the sixteen team table. This season they have dropped even lower.
Major clubs the world over, of course, have to cope with loss of form and occasional bad runs of results. European giants AC Milan, for example, who have not won the Italian League for the past four seasons, Arsenal have not claimed the English Premiership for five, while Borussia Dortmund’s last Bundesliga triumph dates back to 2001-2.
Zamalek’s dearth of success since 2003-4, however, is testing the patience of their fans, and particularly because there is a growing impression that the club is going round in circles in an attempt to find a way out of the maze.
Coaches and managers have come and gone so regularly in recent times that Zamalek must have been tempted to install a revolving door at its Miit Okba stadium in Cairo ’s Giza suburb.
There have been seven changes at the top in the past four years, a trend which began when Egypt ’s Ministry of Youth intervened in 2005, imposing a caretaker management team following internal bickering.
Michel himself is in his second stint as coach. Club president and businessman Mamdouh Abbas, meanwhile, was elected in June after previously trying to solve the Zamalek puzzle in 2006.
Mamdouh’s tactics this time? To look abroad in an attempt to find the key to the club’s salvation.
Having already signed Ghana ’s Abdelrahim Ayew and Remi Adiko from Ivory Coast , he has now gone shopping in the English Premiership, returning with Egyptian exiles Amr Zaki and Ahmed Hossam Mido.
Zaki made a bright start for Wigan but has now been off-loaded. Fellow striker Mido, meanwhile, who also began well in England with Tottenham Hotspur only to fall out of favour, returns on loan from Middlesbrough .
Some believe the signings will mark the start of a new glorious era for Zamalek.
“The return of the two players should be a factor to make the team win again,” says Cairo ’s Dream Team TV sports analyst Mohammed Abass, adding that both Zaki and Mido will be spurred on by international ambition.
Mido, capped 48 times by Egpyt, has been frozen out of the national team for almost two years after falling out with coach Hassan Shehata.
But a return to form for Zamalek might get both Mido and Zaki, who has scored 26 times in 51 international starts but who was overlooked during the 2009 Confederations Cup, back into the reckoning in time for the 2010 World Cup.
Mohammed Abbas argues that Zamalek still has the financial clout and prestige to turn its fortunes around.
He is backed up by 22 year-old striker Sherif Ashraf, who is on the fringes of the Zamalek first team.
“Zamalek are a better team now with the best players in Egypt ,” he says. “Mido and Zaki are big players and Zamalek needs them.”
Others, however, remain unconvinced.
Madhati Shalaby, indeed, the Head of Media for the Egyptian Football Federation, says importing foreign-based stars could lead to yet more off-the-field problems.
“Differences in salaries of players like Mido (and Zaki) have brought friction among the ranks of players,” Madhati says.
It’s a view which is echoed among some fans.
“The (new) players are troublesome,” says Mohammed Hany, a police officer and Zamalek die-hard. “They don’t like each other and that’s why the club has been suffering.”
Fellow fan Ahmed Shady is also worried that coach Michel may be undermined by club president Abbas.
“He is always imposing players on the coach, which does not help team spirit,” says Shady.
It would be fascinating to discover what Michel himself thinks.
But, still tight-lipped and with a frown on his face, he drives off from Zamalek’s Miit Okba stadium without another word.
A security officer at the ground apologizes on the coach’s behalf. “Things are a bit touchy here at the moment,” he explains.
Clearly, the pressure is on.
For now, Michel retains the support of most fans. That, along with team unity, will be a crucial factor in the near-future.
But if fans like Shady begin voting with their feet – and Shady admits his match attendances have become sporadic over the past year – then there will only be one answer to the question: ‘Can Zamalek recover from its fall from grace?’
And that answer? To quote Michel: “No, no, no!