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Ramadan Tales E6: Redefining success – Al Ahly 2004-2009
Happy Ramadan. This is the sixth episode of KingFut’s Ramadan Tales. Here we bring you the legend of Africa’s greatest generation of footballers. Under the tutelage of Manuel Jose, Al Ahly rewrote the history of football in Egypt, Africa and the world.
Al Ahly is an institution imbued with success and African football has witnessed successive memorable generations. Yet all that pales in comparison to what the Red Devils achieved during the reign of Manuel Jose. The Portuguese tactician oversaw 20 titles in total at the helm of the Cairo side; rewriting the history of Egyptian, African and world football. Al Ahly’s great 2004-2009 side, on all measures, redefined success.
It would be criminal to ignore the fact that Manuel Jose first joined Al Ahly in 2001. He had left Portuguese side Uniao de Leira in good stead; one Jose Mourinho would succeed him and go on to build his legend. His first task on joining Al Ahly was a fixture against Real Madrid which the Egyptian side then stunned World football and won. On top of this, he led the side to a great 6-1 win in the Cairo Derby, conquered Africa in winning the revamped CAF Champions league, ending a 14 year drought for the Red Devils, and a CAF Super Cup title, both against South African opposition. Unfortunately, he parted ways with the Cairo giants at the end of the season as they couldn’t win the league in what was a brief spell of departure from the Reds’ customary and thorough dominance. He would have to do special to supervise the training sessions at Mokhtar el Tetsh.
Not much success ensued after Manuel Jose left and he was brought back in 2004 as he had endured a similar, not quite colourful, spell at Belenenses. In his first tenure he had worked with Essam El Hadary and the young prodigy Hossam Ghaly who left for European adventures. His new side for the historic 2004/2005 season was quite something else. Wael Gomaa had realised his full potential, Gilberto had developed a lot – in addition to Emad El-Nahhas, Hossam Ashour, Mohamed Shawky, Emad Meteb, and two more special players; Mohamed Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat who are the only Africa based players to have been named BBC Africa Footballer of the Year.
Al Ahly and their swashbuckling 3-5-2 went on to set a record run for matches undefeated in the calendar year of 2005. These were 55 in total, between a loss to Arab Contractors and Asian champions Al Ittihad Jeddah. This run of games surpassed the 54 match streak set by Santos and Penarol, from Brazil and Uruguay respectively, in the 1960s. Summer of that year witnessed the signing of hitman Flavio Amado who – funnily enough – endured a terrible start to his Red career, with only Manuel Jose’s faith keeping him in Cairo. Al Ahly – though – would go on to win their fourth CAF Champions League crown with Barakat playing the prominent role. Having dispatched Zamalek with 2-1 and 2-0 score-lines in the last four, with Barakat netting three goals, they were set for back-to-back finalists Etoile du Sahel.
Al Ahly thrashed the Tunisian side 3-0 after a goalless first leg; Aboutrika, Osama Hosny, and Barakat grabbing a goal each – with the former and the latter netting outstanding efforts from distance. While Al Ahly didn’t win the Egypt Cup that season, they still went to the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup undefeated in 55 matches for they had been knocked out in the Round of 16 by Ghazl El-Mahalla via a penalty shoot-out. Manuel Jose’s side never fully adapted to the time-zone differences of travelling to the Far East hence despite having a powerful squad were humbled by champions of weaker confederations. First off they lost to AFC Champions, Al Ittihad, by a solitary goal before witnessing Oceania champions Sydney FC pip them as well.
As the 2005/2006 season progressed, Al Ahly had to live with the challenge of outdoing their previous campaign and getting another shot at showing their true ideals at the Club World Cup. This they did and in no less flamboyant fashion. If the man of the hour in 2004/2005 was Barakat, this time it was Aboutrika. Flavio settled in well this time and with Meteb also performing, Al Ahly were peerless in Africa. They won a successive league title without defeat, only this time dropping six points in the entire campaign. This was made up for by winning the Egypt Cup without conceding a goal and capping it with a 3-0 drubbing of Zamalek. Earlier in the campaign, Al Ahly had won both the CAF and Egyptian Super Cups bringing the total haul to four titles. Unlike, Jose’s first spell where the league title was the priority, Al Ahly fans wanted the Champions League especially that it meant pulling level with Zamalek.
Their continental campaign matured from the 2-0 away win to Kenyan side Tusker FC to another final with yet another Tunisian side; CS Sfaxien. The Tunisians – who managed to beat Ahly in the group stages – pulled a 1-1 draw in Cairo in the first leg. It was all to be decided in Rades as Juventus al Arab deemed their home too small. In the lead up, Manuel Jose mentioned Sfaxien being an enemy in Tunis and hoped this would add a little advantage to his team. It seemed there would be no such thing as the game dragged to the end of a goalless affair that would seal Sfax’s first title. However, Shady Mohamed’s long-ball in the 92nd minute, which was latched onto by both Flavio and Meteb found Aboutrika – who volleyed home the decider at the death for back-to-back Champions League crowns. Al Ahly now had five Champions League titles and became the fourth African side to win the treble.
This time their Club World Cup campaign was different; Aboutrika and Flavio starred as they attained a podium finish in the play-off against Club America. It happened in the midst of a new campaign in which another CAF and Egyptian Super Cup titles had been sealed. Barakat was getting broken down by injuries but a new gem was eventually signed in Ahmed Fathy. Al Ahly were irrepressible; whether the industry of Gilberto or Ashour, the magic of Aboutrika and Barakat, resoluteness of Gomaa or clinical prowess of Meteb and Flavio; it didn’t matter to them whether you were a nondescript club in the qualifying rounds or the five times champions of Africa.
In 2007, they won a hatrick of league titles with Flavio and Meteb leading the scoring charts, in addition to outscoring Zamalek in a memorable Egypt Cup final, Osama Hosny’s brace overturning the game.
Despite this there was an air of things being less than satisfactory. Amine Chermiti had led an impressive Etoile du Sahel into stealing Ahly’s moment for a sixth Champions League crown; a shock 3-1 victory in Cairo delaying the inevitable for another year.
Al Ahly made a record fourth consecutive appearance in the Champions League final in 2008, yet it was evident the machine was slowing down.
While they did entrench their dominance of Zamalek and sealed another episode of continental glory on top of a routine Super Cup, their league win was normal and crashed out early in the Cup. For a moment it didn’t matter as they had overtaken Zamalek as the most successful side in the continent by defeating Coton Sport in the final; a haul achieved in just over two decades and three of the six realised in 4 years. However, the Red Devils gave up a two goal lead at the Club World Cup to lose to Pachuca before succumbing to Adelaide United.
Manuel Jose had one more campaign left in him but perhaps, and understandably, the hunger was gone. There was nothing greater Al Ahly could do; they had made Champions League finals routine, league titles had become redundant and the manner in which they dominated Zamalek made Africa’s premier match a colourless save for the ultras choreographies (the record was 13-3-1). In this final season they had to win the league via playoff against Ismaily, and they did – courtesy of Flavio’s header.
This epoch of great African football brought back the ideals of coaching stability and philosophy to African football. It brought back confidence in domestic football and played a big role in adding to Egypt’s AFCON heritage. This is easily the greatest African football generation of all time, a team that basically – did everything, a squad that redefined success.