Egypt, CAIRO – The 2020 CAF Champions League final in Cairo Friday between Egyptian giants Al Ahly and Zamalek will be the first pitting fierce rivals from one country against each other.
Ahly has won the Champions League eight times and been crowned Egyptian Premier League champions on 42 occasions.
Zamalek won the premier African club competition five times and has been Egyptian champions 12 times.
Despite their popularity and wide fan bases, Egypt’s most successful player, Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, never played for either club, lining up with Al Mokawloon Al Arab instead.
Egyptian sports minister Ashraf Sobhi has called on the teams to face off at the Cairo International Stadium under the slogan “No to fanaticism”.
It is likely that fans will have to watch the match in clubs or youth centres, but not in popular neighbourhoods or cafes.
Security services have yet to decide how many supporters can attend the final amid fears of coronavirus and rioting.
Ahly and Zamalek’s historic rivalry has peaked in recent years, especially on social media after they met in the 2019 Egyptian Super Cup, a match Ahly won 3-2.
Supporters of Ahly then took to the street in several regions to celebrate before being “infiltrated” by fanatics, who were arrested.
“Ahly and Zamalek are like brothers and, unfortunately, the fanaticism is only among fans,” said retired Zamalek and Egypt star Hazem Emam.
“(FIFA’s) decision on holding the FIFA Club World Cup in Doha next February has raised the intensity of the confrontation,” said former Ahly player Walid Salaheldin.
Coronavirus fears have loomed large after the infections of Ahly’s Walid Soliman, Mahmoud ‘Kahraba’ Abdelmoneim and Saleh Gomaa and Zamalek’s Mahmoud ‘El Wensh’ Hamdy and assistant coach Medhat Abdelhady.
Two other Zamalek players, Hazem Emam and Mohamed Hassan, have recovered from Covid-19.
Former star Emam says Ahly have switched to “collective football” since South African coach Pitso Mosimane took over in September, while Zamalek’s recently hired Portuguese coach Jaime Pacheco has changed little.
Mosimane has previously beaten Zamalek in a final – guiding Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa to a 3-1 aggregate victory in 2016.
The South African will rely on goalkeeper Mohamed el Shennawy, star Mohamed ‘Afsha’ Magdy, Tunisian Ali Maaloul, Malian Aliou Dieng, and Nigerian Junior Ajayi.
“Mosimane has freed the players from restrictions imposed by former coaches, which tips the scales in his players’ favour against Zamalek’s players and their individual skills, especially (Achraf) Bencharki and Ferjani Sassi,” said Salaheldin.
Pacheco, who returned to Zamalek six years after first coaching the White Knights, said he trusted his players, their strong personalities and ability “to please the fans”.
Zamalek won the Egyptian Super Cup last February against Ahly after a penalty shootout.
The Zamalek stars include veteran Tarek Hamed, Tunisian Sassi, Moroccan Bencharki, Ahmed ‘Zizou’ Sayed and Mostafa Mohammed.
Ahly reached the Champions League final by defeating Wydad Casablanca of Morocco 2-0 away and 3-1 at home while Zamalek overcame the other Casablanca giants, Raja, 1-0 away and 3-1 at home.
The Cairo clubs faced off in the Champions League in 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2013 with Ahly winning five matches and the other three drawn.