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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Al Ahly’s latest African title a result of good fortune and resilience in hostile environments

By Andrew Olsson

The score was 1-1 between Sudanese champions Al-Hilal and South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns in Omdurman, Sudan and Al-Hilal player Athar El Tahir was preparing for a penalty kick that had serious implications for the 2022-23 CAF Champions League. Sundowns were already through to the quarterfinals as the winners of Group B but if El Tahir converted his spot kick the Sudanese club would join the South African champions. However, Sundowns goalkeeper Ronwen Williams came up with a save that was celebrated in Cairo even more than in South Africa.

Those supporters in Cairo were elated because Al-Hilal’s failure to win at home meant that Al Ahly were still in contention to advance, something The Red Devils took advantage of by defeating Hilal 3-0 at home two weeks later to join Sundowns in the quarterfinals of Africa’s top club competition. Ahly went on to win their eleventh CAF Champions League title on Sunday with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Casablanca giants Wydad AC. It is fitting that the club honored with the title of “African Club of the 20th Century” emerged victorious by earning the result they needed in one the most hostile of environments in world football. In case the players of Al Ahly forgot what they were facing the Wydad supporters were eager to remind them:

A disastrous 2021-22 season left Ahly in the shadow of eternal rivals Zamalek and in search of answers to problems that only grew following the dismissal of head coach Pitso Mosimane, an event that resulted from Ahly’s defeat to Wydad in last season’s edition of the Champions League. Experienced Swiss coach Marcel Koller was brought in and his immediate impact was clear to see when Ahly defeated Zamalek 2-0 in October’s Egyptian Super Cup. Since then the 2022-23 season in Egyptian football has been dominated by Ahly who defeated Pyramids FC in the Egypt Cup final and are well on their way to clinching the Egyptian Premier League long before the final matchday.

The CAF Champions League tests the true mettle of Africa’s top clubs and this season’s group stage posed a challenge Koller did not experience in the domestic campaign. Mamelodi Sundowns, a club who have gotten the better of Ahly on occasion in recent years, continued to be a worthy rival and menace by drawing 2-2 in Cairo and then thumping Ahly 5-2 at home in Pretoria. Al-Hilal got the better of Ahly in Omdurman for a controversial 1-0 victory that left the Egyptian club in a precarious position and in need of help from Sundowns in Sudan. Once Ronwen Williams made that penalty kick save, however, it was the stroke of fortune that Koller and his squad needed to deliver the triumph Ahly supporters are celebrating now.

Ahly went on to defeat Wydad’s rivals, Raja CA, by a 2-0 aggregate score in the quarterfinals that saw them hold Raja scoreless in the second leg in front of a similarly hostile Stade Mohammed V crowd they would encounter again in the final. A 3-0 first leg victory in Tunis against another North African power club, Tunisian champions Espérance ST, made qualification for the final all but certain before the return leg in Cairo which Ahly won 1-0.

Following a 2-1 first leg victory in Cairo that featured a good performance but the concession of a dangerous away goal, Ahly once again faced adversity in a familiar venue when Wydad took a first half lead in Casablanca through Yahya Attiyat Allah’s free kick. Led by captain Yahya Jabrane, Wydad did everything they could to make the second leg a street fight rather than a football match, a tactic that appeared to be working well for the hosts who would win if the result held up. However it was central defender Mohamed Abdelmonem who established himself as a club legend and young leader in the match by rising up to head in a corner kick from left back Ali Maâloul for the massive winning goal and an opportunity to celebrate in the face of Wydad supporters as well as the small contingent of Ahly partisans in the stadium.