Coaching thoroughbred Jose Gomes has CAF Confederation Cup in his sights with Zamalek

Portuguese manager has led Egyptian side to brink of glory as they face Morocco's RSB Berkane in first leg of final on Sunday

Portuguese manager Jose Gomes, centre, whose Zamalek side face RSB Berkane of Morocco in the CAF Confederation Cup final. Reuters
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Jose Gomes was tending to his horses when the phone call came. Not just any horses, but award-winning Lusitano horses. His family have bred and ridden them for 300 years close to Guimares in northern Porto.

“I love the horses,” he tells The National. “They used to be bred for the wars, then for work, now it’s more for equestrian. They are used for dressage at the highest level. I have ridden these horses since I was 10 years old but we also have professional riders. My aim to is breed these horses for show jumping.”

Gomes, 53, is also happy to talk with pride about the history of the city of Porto where he was born. “We’re the only city in Portugal which has never been conquered in all the wars. Porto’s other name is ‘Invicta’, it means invincible and FC Porto took this spirit of the city. Even the coaches and players from Lisbon admit that when a player is aggressive and fights for every ball, he has the FC Porto spirit.”

He’s also a football manager who has worked at FC Porto and coached in seven countries managing some big clubs. None of them are as big as his current one, Zamalek, one of the biggest in Africa.

“How could I turn this down?” he explains ahead of the first leg of Sunday’s CAF Confederation Cup final against Moroccan side RSB Berkane.

“Zamalek is a club where you can win trophies. Huge club. Passionate fans. Amazing atmosphere. Let me show you a video of how my life changed from our farm in Portugal.”

The video shows the view from his car the previous night. He is overtaken by a camel on a busy street. As he watches the camel make giant steps, Gomes takes his new life in his stride too.

“When my family was younger and I went to Spain or Greece, they came with me but, as the kids started to grow up, they needed to stay in one place. So they remain in Portugal. It’s not easy for the family of a football coach, but they are also used to this football life and how football can interfere with family life. So, now I’m in Cairo…”

Is it not odd for a Portuguese coach to go to Egypt?

Not at all. A lot of Portuguese coaches have worked in Egypt. I spoke to several of them before I came here. Jesualdo Ferreiro was successful here, Jaime Pacheco too. And because I know coaches who’ve been in Egypt, I know how important a club like Zamalek is.

The Portuguese coaches can help the very good players here be more organised tactically. And they feel like I felt. It’s impossible to go to a stadium here and not feel how special it is with all the passion of the fans. It’s a big challenge to work here, there’s a lot of pressure every day.

When we win the people are happy and they show it. And when we don’t win the people are not happy and they show it. Zamalek are not only big in Egypt and Africa, but all of the Middle East too. You find supporters in Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries. It’s an interesting club to work at.

As well as being a huge club, [Zamalek] is also one which has had a lot of problems outside the pitch. The new board is trying to fix these. But my main feeling is with the passion the people have for this club.

When you go to the restaurant or walk in the streets or see the fans near the training ground, you feel a huge strain from the passion of the fans. I’ve not worked at Barcelona or Real Madrid, but I’ve worked at Benfica and Porto in Portugal – big clubs. I’ve been involved in Champions League games and worked in England so I know how people live football in England, which is fantastic. But here you have people with no money who do anything they can to get some money for a ticket to see a game.

What’s the standard of football like?

Physically, Egyptians are very strong. The fans appreciate players with a high level of technical skills – if you are able to dribble or make key passes or score free kicks, the fans make a big star of you.

Before the games, the fans call the players during the warm ups. The players must stop exercises and go to the fans – it’s fantastic. There’s a big potential for Egyptian football to grow.

Describe the Cairo rivalry with Al Ahly?

We played against them recently and I don’t think people understand how important this game is. Both clubs have fans who, I’m sure, would rather lose the league title than lose games to the other team. Zamalek fans who’d rather lose the league title but beat Al Ahly – it’s like another league title.

Yes, we won [on April 15] with a winning goal after 88 minutes. It was a fantastic game, with a lot of chances near the goals. The stadium wasn’t full because the police didn’t allow it [the Cairo International stadium can hold up to 75,000].

The game between these two teams is a special one, it’s 100 per cent emotion from everybody. It’s a magic moment in football.

You’ve coached in seven different countries. What have you learnt?

In England, the organisation is followed by everyone else. Every small detail is covered. And the full stadiums for every game, that’s a difference with other countries.

As a coach in England, when you work with players, you pass your messages on about what you want. But there’s that moment that a player wins the ball, the challenge. In other countries there would be a foul with so much physical contact. Not in England.

The crowd loves these challenges, the intensity. And this is a challenge for the coach because fans expect this even before you start to plan your offensive game. Challenges are part of the magic of English football, the fans too. When I was at Reading I knew fans who planned their entire life around the team’s schedule. They missed important social events if they clashed with a game of their club.

I’ve worked in other Arab counties, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates but the humour is different in Egypt. They have a special humour, they’re happy people – even the poor people – they enjoy life.

Maybe that’s the influence of Africa mixed with Arab culture. When Egyptians like you, they show that they like you and they love you. They make everything to make you happy. When you are a football coach trying to help them by winning something, they recognise you and support you.

Dreams FC 0 Zamalek 3 - in pictures

The Egyptian table looks crazy. Some teams have played 22 games, Zamalek just 15...

[Laughs] It is crazy. The Federation allows the teams that play in international competitions to postpone games. There are teams who’ve played eight games less than others. Eight games could be 24 points, so it makes a big difference.

It can create a problem because when the CAF, the African federation, asks for the rankings of all the countries’ clubs and asks about the league table for 2023/24, how can they give the Egyptian rankings? They can’t because the league won’t be finished. I don’t know how they’ll solve the problem, but in Africa there’s a ‘don’t worry, we’ll solve the problem attitude’.

You’re also playing games in June and July? Why is that and what’s the heat like?

Hot. Yes, in most leagues they finish by the end of May, but it’s different here. It’s an organisation issue. I hope that the league synchronises with others.

You also play two games in the Confederation Cup final against RSB Berkane...

They have fast and technical players, good skills. They have a Tunisian coach who has a very interesting way to prepare their offensive game. They like to play good football, they don’t just kick and run, they like to play one v one with the wingers and the full-backs. Even the midfielders occupy the spaces that the strikers and the wingers left for them. They’re also strong in the set-pieces. We have the ingredients for a very good game. I hope we can stop the way they like to play and also take advantage of their weak points because of course they have some.

What has it been like travelling to away games in Africa?

It’s tough. You must take a lot of medicine and vaccines for malaria for example. You can suffer with these pills.

When we travel to different countries, we use water only from bottles, even to clean teeth. We take our own chef and the doctor takes care of hydration. Then there’s the temperatures to consider, the heat, humidity, the quality or length of the grass and quality of the pitch. In a pass over 10 metres, the ball can bounce five times. It’s not easy, but then you also meet fantastic people who want to see a great game. The atmosphere around the game [against Dreams FC in Ghana] was excellent. I saw fans with their faces completely painted. It was magic.

What language do you speak to your players in?

I can use Arabic for the football language because I’ve worked in the region before. I can also speak in English, Portuguese, Spanish and a bit of French and understand Italian. I can understand my players.

What’s the perception of Mohamed Salah in Egypt?

He’s a very big star. You see his face in adverts all over. He’s an example for the kids in the football academies to follow so they can be a star in the future.

Updated: May 12, 2024, 11:18 AM