Al Ahly hoping to end marathon schedule with Fifa Club World Cup bronze

Egyptian side take on Al Hilal in Abu Dhabi on Saturday after unforgiving run of interntional and club fixtures

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As Al Ahly’s players head to Al Nahyan Stadium on Saturday, they could be forgiven for feeling a glass ceiling pressing down on them.

At stake is a bronze medal, in what is, at least by Fifa’s definition, the most illustrious global club competition in football. Third place is more than respectable, but it can feel deflating if it becomes too much of a habit.

Since the Club World Cup was formulated as an all-continents event at the turn of the millennium, Al Ahly, Africa’s most successful club, have been its most regular guests. There have been two bronze medals, including last year’s; a fourth-placed finish; a pair of lost fifth-place play-offs.

For a player like Ramy Rabia, long servant of the club, the frustrating proximity to a final is already a decade-long déjà vu. He helped marshall the accomplished victory over Monterrey last weekend to guide his team into the last four. But, once there, the long list of injured or fatigued absentees told in the semi-final defeat to Palmeiras.

Rabia could tell a similar story from as far back as 2012, where a semi-final defeat to a Brazilian club — Corinthians — prevented Al Ahly reaching a final against Chelsea.

Several of Rabia’s teammates have their own tales of near-miss frustration. The last nine weeks have been a concentrated saga of them for Ayman Ashraf, Amr El Solia, Hamdy Fathy, Mohamed Abdelmonem and Mohamed Sherif. For those current Egypt internationals, Saturday’s bronze-medal match against Al Hilal must feel like one cliffhanger too many.

That group have been involved in no fewer than eight knockout matches for club or country in major tournaments in the space of two months. It would have been nine had Al Ahly not been obliged to play their Club World Cup quarter-final against Monterrey the day before their Egypt internationals were in action, 5,000km away, in last Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final.

First, there was December’s Arab Cup in Qatar, to which Egypt sent a strong squad. Their quarter-final against Jordan went to a full 120 minutes; the semi against Tunisia was goalless until El Solia unfortunately deflected into his own net five minutes into stoppage time. The third-place play-off turned into a marathon, too, Egypt losing on penalties to the hosts, Sherif failing to convert the last Egyptian spot-kick and leaving the Pharaohs just shy of a bronze medal.

What happened in Cameroon is still too fresh and painful in the Egyptian memory to bear detailed repeating, except that the habit of narrow margins was impeccably maintained: four doses of extra-time in the knockout rounds and final; three penalty shoot-outs, taking the Al Ahly players through various contortions of tension, fatigue and, in two cases, serious injury.

Goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy pulled out with a hamstring problem in extra-time of Egypt’s last-16 match; Akram Tawfik had ruptured a cruciate ligament early in the opening group game, removing both from the climax of Afcon and the later stages of the Club World Cup.

As for the quintet who wheezed all the way through Afcon, they will be forgiven for dreading the possibility of yet another tiebreaker on Saturday. Penalties got Egypt through two stages of the Afcon, but were then cruel to them in the final, Abdelmonem one of those who failed to convert in the shoot-out against Senegal, leaving Egypt with a second silver medal from their last three Africa Cup of Nations.

All of which threatens to cast this cohort of Al Ahly and Egypt footballers as a ‘nearly’ generation, even if they are entitled to regard themselves as masters of club football on their own continent. Next week, Al Ahly resume their pursuit of a third successive African Champions League title.

Their manager, Pitso Mosimane, is justified in complaining about scheduling. This month’s squeeze on the calendar denied him seven Egypt internationals for the outset of the Club World Cup, meant he lost two important men because of injuries sustained at Afcon and welcomed back his other five Pharaohs in a state of gloomy exhaustion only the night before the semi-final against Palmeiras.

The good news? Afcon is due to go back to its summer slot from 2023 and so will not clash with the club diary in the same way again. Also on the horizon for Al Ahly’s consolidating their superclub status is the projected African Super League, possibly to be launched next year, with its promise of new income streams and heightened competition.

For Egyptian football, there is, in the foreground, yet another cliffhanger — the two-legged, revenge-tinted World Cup qualifier against Senegal, with the Cairo meeting only 40 days away. That’s just enough time for the Al Ahly band of Pharaohs to catch breath, perhaps heal injuries and figure out how to claim a place at the next World Cup without recourse to another penalty shoot-out.

Updated: February 11, 2022, 6:30 AM