Al Ahly's CAF Champions League humiliation raises big questions for Egyptian football

A 5-0 defeat to Mamelodi Sundowns symbolises spectacular fall from grace for Africa's most successful club, with absence of fans for home matches seemingly taking its toll

Al Ahly players have become used to playing in front of empty stadiums, but the lack of atmosphere at matches in Egypt looks like it is having a negative impact on results. EPA
Al Ahly players have become used to playing in front of empty stadiums, but the lack of atmosphere at matches in Egypt looks like it is having a negative impact on results. EPA

A 5-0 thrashing of Egypt's Al Ahly in the first leg of the CAF Champions League quarter-finals has shocked and angered fans of the country's biggest and most decorated club, also raising questions about whether security measures surrounding matches at home were taking their toll on the sport.

Al Ahly's heavy loss on Saturday came at the hands of South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns in Pretoria. The two sides meet again in Egypt next weekend, with the home side facing the near impossible task of winning the tie to book a place in the semi-finals.

It was Al Ahly's heaviest defeat in African competiton, a low that inspired front-page headlines in Sunday’s newspapers in Cairo, calling it a "humiliating " and "historic” defeat. Already, calls are being made for the dismissal of the team's manager, Uruguayan Martin Lasarte, whose emotional apology to fans may not be enough to save his job.

"We are embarrassed and apologise to you. There is nothing else to be said. We will talk less and work more from now on," he told the post-match news conference.

What makes the defeat in Pretoria all the more significant is that it was inflicted on a club that has won the Champions League a record eight times. The club's domestic record is no less impressive. Founded in 1907, the Cairo club have won 40 league titles and lifted the Egyptian Cup 36 times. Al Ahly currently sit second in the Egyptian Premier League, two points off arch rivals Zamalek.

Al Ahly last won the Champions League in 2012, the same year when more than 70 of the club's supporters died in a riot at the Mediterranean city of Port Said. That tragedy, among the deadliest in world football, has led to an on-and-off ban on fans attending matches that continues to this day.

The argument of the ban's proponents – police and security agencies – was bolstered by the death of some two dozen fans in a 2015 stampede triggered by police's use of tear gas on fans trying to enter a military stadium in a Cairo suburb.

Many of the country's football pundits believe the absence of fans from domestic matches has taken away the spirit and joy of matches and impacted on the quality of the game. This is specifically true of Al Ahly, which enjoys by far the largest following in the football-mad nation of some 100 million people.

Al Ahly's home leg against Sundowns is scheduled to take place in the city of Suez, east of Cairo, and authorities will be under pressure to allow a capacity crowd there, around 27,000, to cheer the team to an improbable comeback.

"Your fate is uncertain without your fans," lawyer Mohammed Rashwan, an influential Al Ahly supporter who has defended many of the club's fans in court, wrote on Facebook. The club's hardcore element of fans, the "ultras Ahlawy," have a history of enmity with the police, a legacy rooted in their anti-government chants at matches and their clashes with security forces during the popular 2011 uprising and the subsequent violence that year.

Updated: April 7, 2019 07:51 PM


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