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FEATURE: When Zamalek last tasted African glory
The CAF African Champions League is the pinnacle of African club football; a competition which Egyptian teams have had great success in over the years. Cairo giants Al Ahly currently hold the record for the most competition wins (8) but in a couple of weeks the other giants of Cairo will be looking to add to their tally. With a thrilling 6-5 aggregate win in the semi-final over Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca, Zamalek have made their first CAF Champions League final since a brilliant cup win back in 2002. Today we have a look at that thrilling run which delivered Zamalek their fifth continental triumph a little over 14 years ago.
Qualifying Rounds are a tricky thing in African football with many games played in conditions that are challenging beyond belief. Heat, intimidating atmospheres in away stadiums and sometimes below-par pitches are some of the obstacles clubs from all around the continent face in competition. Zamalek’s first qualifying round tie in 2002 had elements of these factors having been drawn against Rwandan side APR FC.
The campaign began on the 9th of March, 2002 in Cairo, a massive advantage in the context of the tie as Zamalek had home support in their first match of the tournament. The White Knights did not disappoint, with a 6-0 belting of their Rwandan opposition following individual goals to Hossam Hassan, Gamal Hamza, Mohamed Sabry, Mohamed Abdel Wahed and a brace for club legend Hazem Emam. The win all but secured Zamalek’s passage into the second round of qualification, with a 0-0 draw in the away tie more than enough to see the Cairo based side through.
Zamalek were then drawn against Zambian side Nkana FC in the second and final round of qualification for the Group Stages of the tournament. Nkana FC were the reigning champions of the Zambian League, and historically Zambian teams have proved quite difficult to break down when playing against Egyptian opposition. Zamalek again begun the tie with a home match, comfortably taking a 2-0 lead courtesy of Hossam Hassan and Walid Saleh Abdel Lattif into the second leg. The White knights managed a 1-1 draw away from home to secure a 3-1 aggregate win, propelling them in to the group stages.
Zamalek begun their group stage campaign in stunning fashion on the 2nd of August 2002, comprehensively beating ASEC of the Ivory Coast 3-1 at home courtesy of a brilliant Abdel Halim Ali hat trick. The White Knights then faced Esperance of Tunisia, ending in a 1-1 draw, which would ultimately be the team’s only draw of the group stages. Hossam Hassan got on the scoresheet in that tie with Zamalek unlucky not to walk away with the three points after Medhat Abdel Hady missed a penalty for the Cairo based side. Zamalek rounded out the first half of their group stage campaign with a 0-2 away win over Mozambique side Costa Del Sol.
The White Knights continued the run with a 3-0 home win over Costa Del Sol in the return fixture with Hossam Hassan, Hazem Emam and Wael Al-Quabbani getting on the score sheet for the hosts. Moroccan giants Raja Casablanca had secured first place in the other group by this point in the competition which made the last two games for Zamalek that much more crucial in the race for top spot in Group B. The group was blown wide open on match day five, with ASEC gaining revenge on their Egyptian counterparts, edging the White Knights 1-0. At this point, Esperance, Zamalek and ASEC all had a chance of going through as top of the group, however Zamalek held out, recording a 1-0 home win against Esperance in the final match of the group stages.
Having avoided Group A’s heavy hitters in the semi final after finishing first in their group, Zamalek still had a testing challenge to contest. TP Mazembe qualified for the semi finals having finished second in Group A, 3 points behind Raja Casablanca. The tie was made a little more daunting with the fact that the first leg would be held in Congo, meaning a good result with at least a goal scored away would be crucial. Zamalek did get their away goal but it did come in a 1-1 draw in the first leg. Everything to play for in Cairo. With that being said, Zamalek certainly did play for everything in the second leg, running out 2-0 winners after a tough test from the Congolese side. Hossam Hassan took his goals tally to 6 for the tournament in the match, notching a brace to send Zamalek through to their first continental final since 1996, a date with favourites Raja Casablanca.
Zamalek were to travel to Casablanca in the first leg of the final, a place known for it’s hostility and extremely tense stadium atmosphere. The White Knights came away with a 0-0 draw in a game which saw chances fall for both sides, with the Cairo based side not able to capitalise and score a crucial away goal. The stage was set for an electric encounter on the 13th of December 2002 at the famous Cairo International Stadium. With both sides naming strong starting line-ups, the first major chance fell to Zamalek’s Hazem Emam in the 18th minute. After a brilliant amazing run through the heart of the Raja midfield, Emam whipped a shot on target which was turned around the post for a corner.
In the 3rd minute of added time at the end of the first half Zamalek had their breakthrough, with Tamer Abdel Hamid scoring brilliantly. Abdel Hamid, who had picked the ball up in midfield, lashed a fierce strike which was destined for the top corner of the net. Casablanca keeper Mustapha Chadli got a hand to it but was helpless as the ball looped into the back of the net. Casablanca came out chasing the equaliser and it looked to have come in the 60th minute, but replays showed midfielder Noureddine Kacemi had directed the ball into the net with his hand in an almost Maradona-esque attempt to drawl level from a corner. Zamalek held on with the game ending 1-0 in favour of the White Knights, allowing the side to lift the trophy in front of a packed stadium of supporters.
Zamalek had done it, their first continental trophy since 1996. A triumph made all the more satisfying with the side lifting the trophy on home soil. The Cairo based giants however, have been through a rough patch since, having not made an appearance in a CAF Champions League final since that day in 2002. They do have the chance this weekend to break the trend, against Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa, a surprise package in this seasons edition of the tournament. Can it be done? Based on the semi final, if Zamalek can come out blazing and keep focused in defence, it is a definite possibility.