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Cairo Derby III: Royal allegiance and scandals

cairo derbyIn our previous two parts we documented the reasons for why the has become an Egyptian landmark. With very distinct ideologies and Hussein Hegazi thrown into the mix, the Derby was bound to reach unprecedented heights.

In this plug of‘s series about the Cairo Derby we document significant events which led to the rivalry between both sides, in addition to rise of fanaticism in the Nasser era.

1944- The Royal Allegiance

In 1943, a Palestinian sports writer invited the Red Devils to play three friendly games in Palestine, an offer which was vehemently rejected by the Egyptian FA who threatened to issue life bans to any player who disobeys their decision.

Knowing that the players are under threat, Al Ahly’s board allowed 14 players to travel under the name of ‘Cairo Stars’, thus preventing them from facing any sanctions. However, Egypt’s football governing body in fact took the decision to issue life bans to the players.

Although it might seem as an ordinary conflict, in reality it wasn’t; why? For the fact that the president of the FA at that time was Mohamed Heidar Pasha, the president of Zamalek. Even though any president at the time would’ve issued a similar sanction, Al Ahly fans saw it as a way of ‘killing’ the side.

On the 2nd of June 1944, Al-Mokhtalat set out against Al Ahly in the final of the Egypt Cup in the most anticipated fixture of the Egyptian footballing calendar. However, this game was like no other in the fact that the build-up was electrifying for what happened beforehand, and fanaticism had reached boiling point.

The weakened Al Ahly side were no match for the mighty Zamalek who cruised to a 6-0 victory, the largest scoreline in any Cairo Derby tie. King Farouk of Egypt, loving the way the Whites played renamed Al-Mokhtalat to ‘Farouk’, thus earning Zamalek the nickname ‘Royals’.

Despite the ecstasy surrounding the victory, Al Ahly fans saw it as a conspiracy. The president of the FA who also happened to be the president of Zamalek issued life bans to 14 players. Even to this point, the Red Devils refuse to name the victory as a black page in the club’s history, with Ultras Ahlawy even referring to it as an ‘honour’ for the club to rebel against the government.

1952- Egypt as a single-party state and the rise of fanaticism 

cairo derbyFollowing the Egyptian revolution of 1952, anything related to the royal family was annihilated. Which is why Farouk changed their name to ‘Zamalek’, the name that has stuck with them ever since.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s come to power in 1956 effectively ended political life in Egypt and so Al Ahly and Zamalek were no longer teams to support, but they were a way to express and have a sense of belonging; both sides were the political parties in Egypt. Famous Lebanese writer Selim El-Lozy even once went as far as saying that “Al Ahly and Zamalek are the only political parties in the Arab World.”

Foreign refereeing and scandals

By 1955, the rivalry had become deadly, prompting the FA to take the decision to bring foreign referees to officiate the game. It was almost unthinkable that an Egyptian would be completely neutral when officiating the game, and the common notion that exists until today is that if you don’t support Al Ahly or Zamalek then you must favour one over the other.

The evolution of the Cairo Derby progressed even further throughout the years of Nasser’s regime. Egypt had become a sovereign, single-party state thus increasing the hooliganism associated with the Derby which reached climax in 1966.

The Derby in 66′ refereed by Sobhy Nosseir brought one of the most dangerous derbies in history. Halfway through the tie, Nosseir decided to cancel the game due to the Al Ahly faithful’s belligerence following Zamalek’s equalising goal. Angered by the decision, the fans of the Red Devils rioted throughout the streets of Cairo.

In fact, Egyptian officials have been responsible for the most controversial moments in the history of the derby. In the 1981/1982 season, referee Mohamed Hossam El-Din officiated the penultimate game of the season. The Whites needed to win, whereas a draw would suit Al Ahly.

With four minutes left until the end the end of the game Hassan Shehata broke through the Al Ahly defence and slotted the ball into the net only to find that the flag was raised. Replays showed that the linesman had got it wrong, Shehata’s goal was legitimate – but it did not count. Al Ahly were champions.

Fourteen years later in 1996, Hossam Hassan had equalised for Al Ahly, but then-Zamalek coach Farouk Gaafar was adamant that referee Kadry Abdel-Azeem had got it wrong. Angry and furious at the decision, the Whites’ players forfeited the game.

In fact, the FA were very reluctant to let an Egyptian referee officiate that they sent four of them to the Derby, let them to warm-up before eventually announcing that Abdel-Azeem would referee on short notice to prevent any backlash from both sides. The significance of the game would be best described by referee Gamal El-Ghandour’s quote:

“World Cup games are much easier than Cairo Derbies; in the World Cup the players obey the referee’s decision which is obviously not the case in the Derby.”

Even foreign referees have not prevented the polemic, in 1999 referee Marc Batta sent off Zamalek man Ayman Abdel-Aziz for a tackle on Ibrahim Hassan five minutes into the game. Farouk Gaafar again ordered his players off the field; and was quoted later by saying “How would’ve I dealt with Al Ahly with only 10 players on the field for 85 minutes?”

cairo derby

This idea that losing the Derby is the synonym of living in dystopia is what makes it special and on Sunday, both resume this historical Derby when Africa’s finest sides come head-to-head in a tie which appeals to every sector of the Egyptian society.

Al Ahly and Zamalek are two nations, two parties, two giant entities who have always overshadowed everything else in Egypt. Simply, Al Ahly and Zamalek are Egyptian football and Egyptian football is Al Ahly and Zamalek.

Al Ahly fanatic and Italian football aficionado. Working on a degree in Business Administration at the American University in Cairo.

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