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Two Cairo giants, one giant Egyptian football problem
When you are talking Egyptian football, you are surely in a way or another going to talk about Ahly and Zamalek. These Cairo giants are two of the biggest Egyptian football icons. From African Champions League triumphs to memorable Club World Cup appearances and heated derbies shared between these two, they have done it all. While these two clubs have for a long time provided and still provide Egypt with a handful of good players, they also represent one of the biggest tumours in Egyptian football.
Egyptian Football Problem
The Egyptian football problem we are talking about here is these two clubs’ transfer policies – their use of transfers and horrendous ways of managing youngsters. Following the Egyptian Premier League while being an Ismaily, Masry, Ittihad or any other club fan can be frustrating to an extent where you either start being a fan of Ahly or Zamalek (if you can’t beat them, join them) or hate them without limits. Why? Any Egyptian league follower knows that once the transfer window opens, these two teams throw large amounts of cash to buy any promising player whether it’s a bright young prospect or an already proven and well performing player. Normal behaviour from the two heavyweights of a league you will tell me. The problem is that after a couple of Egyptian league transfer windows you realize that most of the players they buy and especially the young ones are benched and kept at the club for no reasons until the death of their once promising careers.
Buying players and benching them is the motto of these two clubs. This Egyptian football problem is so big and has been there for so many years that these clubs literally killed generations of talented players. Careers are destroyed by either transferring the young lads to the club, tying them to five-year long contracts and benching them until the end of their contracts or by already having young talented players in their reserves and youth teams, but never giving them a fair chance (sticking them to the bench at best) despite their success at international levels. These clubs also usually simply refuse to sell them despite not playing them.
We can take for example players like ‘Afroto’, who offered an outstanding performance at the 2009 U-20 World Cup held in Egypt but despite that, never got a decent chance with Al Ahly. We even had the chance to see him being introduced into some of Ahly’s league games where he impressed the fans to a point where his name was the subject of chants in the crowd, but the coaching staff still managed to completely ignore him without any apparent reasons to do so. I can particularly remember an Ahly game between Ahly and El-Shorta where Afroto came on to score two fantastic goals and creating a penalty for Ahly (who went on to win the game) and was completely ignored for the next couple of games without any apparent reason. In any other club a player who comes on from the bench and makes you win a game single handedly is probably assured of participating in the next game and gets a serious look at, but it seems that for Ahly it wasn’t enough as it is most of the time regarding youngsters.
Ahmed Shokry is another player that was and is still full of potential at 24, but has been constantly benched since 2009 (which means the lad is now on the bench for his 4th straight year). Despite the boy usually scoring or sparking up Al Ahly to a goal when he comes off the bench or starts a game (rarely) and his impressive displays at the 2009 U-20 WC, he remains at best a bench warmer if he’s not excluded from the squad.
Recently we have learned that Abdelhamid Shabana (who was once dubbed to be the next Abou Treika at the moment of his signature) signed a contract in India for Churchill Brothers S.C. Was he a decent player or simply overrated and given one of those over-hyping classical Egyptian nicknames? We will never know since Shabana was assigned to the bench or excluded of the lineup like most of the youngsters Ahly buy. Of course, this behaviour by the team towards the youngsters is most of the time paired with a total refusal to sell the absolutely unused players who are stuck during the important developmental years of their career with no playing time at all until their contract is over.
Some of these players manage to attract attention of European clubs who are searching for potential talented gems in U-20, U-21 or U-23 games at the national team level. This, most of the time, signals the beginning of another masquerade. The Ahly or Zamalek board usually receive the offer and lets the news sink in for a couple of days (and Egyptian fans rejoice at the idea of an Egyptian youngster moving to Europe) before announcing the counter offer which is most of the time quite ridiculous for an African-based player. Of course, the European interest seeing that their counterpart is throwing high illogical prices (almost ridiculous) will stop their pursue of the player who is now official stuck with Ahly or Zamalek for three or four years before being released as a 25 or 26-year-old once promising player who lost his most important football years warming a bench.
The couple of examples I used were from Al Ahly, but Zamalek are as bad if not worse than their arch rivals when it comes to their use of the transfer window and their transfer policy. We can think of the famous Shikabala transfer saga a couple of years ago when Anderlecht R.S.C were bidding for the midfield ace only to receive counter offers from Zamalek ranging in the five million Euros region followed by a total refusal to sell the player despite him clearly angling for a move to Belgium. The ongoing saga of Mohamed Ibrahim is also a good example. The 21-year-old player who impressed not only the fans, but the likes of Malaga CF in 2012/2013 starting for Zamalek SC in the CAF Champions League and the Egyptian Premier League (before the cancellation of the season) scoring four goals and assisting six times in nine starts have been a bench warmer since Helmy Toulan took over last summer. Zamalek, who till now have refused to sell Ibrahim to Malaga CF, promised the youngster could join the La Liga side if they were to win the Egypt Cup, which they did. However, it remains highly improbable that the young Ibrahim will be allowed to leave despite the club sticking him to the bench in favour of the 33-year-old Ahmed Eid who is clearly showing much weaker numbers than Ibrahim despite the latter receiving a limited amount of game time compared to Eid.
With the national team failing to qualify once again for the World Cup and the core of the squad probably retiring in a near future it is important that the young generation gets every chance to shine at club level in order to at least get another batch of young Egyptians in top European leagues. It will also be important for the young players to get their chances at club level in order to secure a vast choice of players for the newly appointed Shawky Gharib – who in my opinion will be faced with a problem regarding the replacement of some of the players retiring or are no longer good enough for the NT.
Should we implement a limit to contract years for players under a certain age? Perhaps a maximum of two-year contract offers to U-23 players acquired in transfers as well as U-23 players who are signing professional contracts coming from the youth system of the team. This could help the youngsters evaluate their situations, playing time, development at the club and future possible role and then decide to stay or leave at the end of the two years. Of course, this is just an idea like many others, but the issue is real and has to be dealt with if we don’t want to lose any other potential quality players.
PS: Mohamed Salah was once a Zamalek target and they decided not to buy him from Arab Contractors S.C… I will let you guys imagine the disaster it would’ve been.
Also, it is important to indicate that this article was not written with an anti-Zamalek or an anti-Ahly point of view. This article is written in order to tackle an Egyptian football problem that in my opinion needs to be solved if we want our football to reach the next level.