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Ramadan Tales S2EP05 – Ismaily’s unforeseen African triumph
The fifth episode of this season’s Ramadan Tales sheds light on Ismaily’s road to the African glory in 1969-1970 season. The first Egyptian and Arab team to lift the prestigious African Champions League, then known as the African Cup of Champions Clubs.
Winning the African Champions League has never been easy. It’s one of African football’s greatest achievements and winning it with a team participating in the tournament for the first time is an even greater achievement. While Egyptian clubs hold the record for most CAF Champions Leagues won (13), it wasn’t either of the Cairo giants that won Egypt’s first continental club crown, they were another familiar face. On 9 January 1970, Ismaily became the first Egyptian and Arab team to win the most prestigious club tournament in Africa following their defeat of Zaire’s Englebert (nowadays the mighty Congolese giants TP Mazembe) in the final to clinch the African Champions League title.
The Yellow Dragons gained entry to the competition as champions of the 1966/67 Egyptian Premier League (yes, you read that correctly), winning it for the first time in their history after hard fought battle with Al Ahly. The Northeastern powerhouses were big underdogs to win the African Champions League, simply because domestic football was almost entirely suspended due to the 1967 war, Ismaily were the pre-war champions. However, despite not being able to play in Ismailia due to the war, they defied the odds and went on to win the trophy without losing a single game, scoring 22 goals in just eight games to lift the club’s only African Champions League honour to date. Now, let’s take a look at Ismaily’s road to the African title.
First round: Al Tahaddy SC
The first round draw was ‘kind’ on the ‘African Samba’, as they were drawn against Libyan league champions Al Tahaddy. The first leg was played in Benghazi on the 12th of October 1969 and the Egyptians had no problems against the Libyans, beating them 5-0 thanks to an Amiro Darwish hat-trick, and respective goals from Ali Abougriesha and Sayed Abdel Razek “Bazouka”.
The return leg was played exactly seven days later, and manager – Ali Osman – named an unchanged line-up from the side that beat the Libyan side in the first leg. The game was just as straightforward as the first leg as Ismaily cruised to a 3-0 victory (8-0 on aggregate) thanks to the same scorers in the first leg: Amiro, Abougreisha, and Bazouka.
Quarter Final : Gor Mahia
Ismaily’s opponents in the quarter final were Kenyan Premier League champions Gor Mahia, who were also participating in the tournament for the first time, with the first leg being played in Nairobi, Kenya on 9 November 1969. Ismaily came out on top in the first game with a 3-1 victory, and all of visitors’ goals were scored by Ali Abougriesha, taking his tally to five goals in just 3 games.
As for the return leg, it was played ten days later at Zamalek’s home ground – Helmy Zamoura Stadium. The first half ended in a dull 0-0 draw – however, Bazouka’s goal early on in the second half ensured the Yellow Dragons’ progression to the semi-finals.
Semi Final : Asante Kotoko
Ismaily were drawn against Ghanaian giants and then-league champions Asante Kotoko in the semi-finals. The Ghanaian team weren’t as easy as Al-Tahaddy or Gor Mahia. After all, they’d played in the Champions League twice before, reaching the quarter-finals in 1966, and finishing as runners-up in 1967 after losing to Congolese club TP Englebert on away goals.
Ismaily had a dream start in the first leg in Kumasi. with Ali Abougriesha scoring an impressive solo goal with 38 minutes on the clock, before Abdelrahman ‘Anos’ extended the visitors’ lead after the half-time break. Unfortunately, the Egyptian side couldn’t hold on to their two-goal lead, Ghanaian winger Ibrahim Sunday was able to score twice for the hosts, keeping his side’s final chances alive.
The second leg at Helmy Zamoura on December 7 saw Ismaily progress to the final after a 3-2 nail-biter to book a place in the final against TP Englebert. Hendawy scored twice to give Ismaily a 2–1 lead in the first-half, before Abougriesha scored the third goal in the second-half; however, the visitors pulled one back via Osman, but the goal wasn’t enough to knock out Ismaily. The Yellow Dragons were on the brink of history.
Final: TP Englebert
There was no doubt that Ali Osman’s side were big underdogs for the final – after all, TP Englebert had won the trophy twice in a row – in 1967 against Malian club AS Real Bamako, and in 1968 against Asante Kotoko.
Englebert entered the competition as Zairean league champions. They started the tournament in the first round, where their opponents were Africa Sports of Ivory Coast. Englebert won the first leg 2–1 at their home ground, before drawing 2-2 in Abidjan. In the quarter-finals they were able to dispatch 1968 finalists Étoile Filante 4–2 on aggregate, before beating Guinea champions Conakry II (now Hafia FC) 7–5 on aggregate.
The first leg, which was played in Kinshasa on the 21st of December 1969 ended in a 2-2 draw. The hosts took the lead in the 8th minute from the spot, Ismaily responded by scoring twice through Sayed Abdel-Razik and Hendawy, but Englebert scored the equalizer before half-time. Ismaily were only 90 minutes away from their first African Chamoions Legaue crown.
The event was huge, Ismaily were only a game away from winning the country’s first African Club crown, which explains why 130,000 Ismaily fans packed Cairo Stadium (Nasser Stadium, at the time) for the return-leg, in which the hosts won 3-1. Ismaily took an early lead through Ali Abougriesha, managing to hold onto it until the end of the half. However, five minutes into the second-half, Englebert equalized through Mulinda. Englebert’s endeavours were soon crushed, however. A foul on Abougreisha inside the area allowed Bazouka to retake Ismaily’s lead, in which he did with perfection – Ismaily were actually leading 2-1.
With only three minutes remaining, Bazouka once again haunted the Zaireans, scoring his second of the game from an indirect free-kick. Ismaily had made history; euphoric vibes in Cairo, where 130,000 Ismaily fans saw their side defy all odds – the Daraweesh were kings of Africa.
Believe it or not, the Daraweesh’s record of being the only team to win the tournament actually stood until 1982 when record holders Al Ahly won it for the first time; in fact, the only side which came remotely close to winning it in those 12 years were Ghazl El-Mahalla in 1974, who lost out in the final against CARA Brazzaville of Congo. In fact, the Ismaily generation of 2003, which included Egyptian legends such as Ahmed Fathi, Hosni Abd Rabo, Emad El-Nahhas, and Islam El-Shater failed to win the CAF Champions League, losing in the final against Nigeria’s Enyimba.
Football was suspended, they couldn’t play in their hometown, and had to defeat two African powerhouses in the process. That generation of 1970 defied logical reasoning, and their legacy is bound to last until the end of time, a bedtime story told in nearly every household in Ismalia. The story of Ali Osman’s warriors, who won the country’s first African honour.