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The Cairo Derby: The greatest encounter in African Football

Posted on April 17, 2014

The Cairo Derby

The : With 28 African titles and 151 domestic titles between them, there is no doubt that the between Al Ahly and Zamalek is the biggest game in Egyptian and African football. The two sides are the two most decorated clubs in the continent and the country by a landslide, and when these two giants meet the whole country comes to a standstill. However, what created the rivalry? Of course, being the most successful clubs in the region is enough to instigate hatred, but there are other hidden stories behind the greatest rivalry in African football. Due to the many events which signified such a rivalry, the history of the will be divided into two articles.

Al Ahly- Nationalist Organisation embodied in a Sporting club

Egypt was a place for the foreigners, to the foreigners and by the foreigners. The large foreign contingents were in control of Egypt. After the bloody incident of Denshawai one year earlier, the Egyptians had reached the pinnacle of nationalism. They were furious and they needed a way to battle the English, this is exactly why Al Ahly were born.

Prior to 1907, all the sporting and social clubs were foreign-property. In short, only the elite class Egyptians and the foreigners were allowed in. The British contingent, for example, had the Khedive Social Club (now known as Gezira Sporting Club), Heliopolis Club, and Sporting Club in Alexandria. The non-elite Egyptians were simply forbidden from entering; they were enslaved in their own land.

Omar Lotfi Bek, president of the Students Club, (a prominent Egyptian nationalist political club established in 1905), came up with the idea of establishing a sporting club for the Egyptians since sports and social clubs at that time were exclusively for foreigners. Al Ahly would be a sporting club that will be for the Egyptians, to the Egyptians, and by the Egyptians.

On the 24th of April 1907, a group of Egyptian middle-class men met in Dokki, the place where a Consultant of the Ministry of Finance by the name of Mitchell Ince resided. The group of Egyptians, led by Omar Lotfi felt that if Ince was president of the club, it’d be easier to acquire the needed land. After all, the British government were against the idea of an Egyptian nationalist organisation being founded, so if an Englishman was in charge it would dismiss any links with nationalism. By 5:30PM, 10 amendments were signed, a group photo was taken, and Al Ahly Sporting Club was established.

Why Al Ahly?

The name of the club is enough to enforce the idea of nationalism, Al Ahly basically means National Club. In fact, up to the early 1990s, French speaking African countries displayed the club name as ‘National’ on the scoreboards.

Al Ahly against the British Rule

For many years during the British control of Egypt, whenever Al Ahly won a game the celebrations would quickly turn into mass demonstrations against the British rule. In fact, leader of the 1919 Egyptian revolution Saad Zaghloul was the first president of Al Ahly’s ‘House of Commons’.

During the 1919 revolution, the students involved in Al Ahly led several demonstrations against the British rule, they would most notably chant Sayed Darwish songs. One of which included a song that translates to:

Mr. Hamza, we are the students

We don’t care if we go to prison, nor do we care about the governorate

We’re used to living on bread, and sleeping with no blankets


يا عم حمزة احنا التلامذه

ما يهمناش من السجن ده. و لا المحافظه

واخدين عالعيش الحاف. و النوم منغير لحاف

When the club won the Sultan Hussein Cup back in 1922/23, the fans and the players and the fans went out demonstrating against the British occupation forces.

 Zamalek- French and Belgian with a mix of Egyptian

Contrary to popular belief, Zamalek weren’t a club made for the English, in fact Zamalek were a club established by the British’s ‘rivals’ at that time. The White Knights were an organisation for the Belgians and French who felt they needed a club of their own, they felt they were marginalised by the Brits. After all, every other contingent had their own club(s).

The Belgians and the French played a prominent role in the modernisation of Egypt. For example, the area of Heliopolis was designed by Belgian architect Baron Empain. Countless palaces, areas, and bridges were designed and built by the Belgians and the French – even Cairo at the time was dubbed ‘Paris of the East’ because the buildings looked similar.

George Marzbach first came up with the idea of establishing Zamalek, however the club was not exclusively established for foreigners. Zamalek were a ‘mix’. The club included people from different nationalities, but the nationalities that dominated were: the Belgians, French, and Egyptians.

By 1911, Zamalek were founded under the name of ‘Qasr El-Nil’, which literally means Palace of the Nile. The reason being is that the club’s headquarters was located near the nile. However, two years later, the club moved headquarters and located in the crossroad between 26th of July Street, and Ramses Street. The club then subsequently changed it’s name to ‘Mokhtalat’, which literally means ‘Mixed’.

The question that remains however is how did Zamalek become a great? This lies in the identity of the club itself. If we look at Heliopolis, Gezira, Sporting, or the Italian Tennis Club, all of them never reached the unprecedented heights Zamalek reached despite all being foreign-owned. This lies in the ideology of White Knights itself. When Marzbach and his men gathered to form Zamalek, they wanted to create a superpower capable of being the best in Egypt. They didn’t create a club solely for leisure time.In fact, Zamalek’s second president, Nicolas Arfagi Bianchi, was a Frenchman who played as the club’s first-choice left-winger.

The story that Zamalek’s foreign presidency changed after the 1919 revolution has been deemed apocryphal. Dr. Mohamed Badr Pasha took over after Bianchi’s two year reign, but the club’s policy of a mixed club remained for many years.

The differences in background are enough to create such a rivalry, but the fact is that there are many more events which define the Cairo Derby, for the roots of the rivalry can be portrayed simply by going back in time. Al Ahly were a club established solely for the Egyptians, while Zamalek were established by the Belgian and French contingents living in Egypt.

One Comment

  1. E

    April 18, 2014 at 8:25 PM

    Great article. Though the fans chant was in Egyptian dialect (very local) of Arabic, not Arabic language (Classical Arabic).

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