This feature is a part of A Tale of One City
As his tiny chisel chipped away to create the first gap in the crumbling wall, Howard Carter breathed air that hadn’t been breathed in over three millennia. Fifteen years of relatively fruitless toil searching the Valley of the Kings, interrupted by the Great War, had gradually exhausted the patience of his wealthy benefactor Lord Carnarvon, but his ground-breaking rediscovery of Tutankhamun’s resting place in November 1922 changed his life forever. The staggering opulence of the tomb, which held over 7,000 treasures, including 110kg of solid gold for the outer two sarcophagi and the pharaoh’s funeral face mask alone, spoke to the wondrous magnificence of The New Kingdom, and sparked a worldwide fascination with Egyptology.
A few months later, as Carter finally uncovered the body of the 18-year-old ruler of ancient Egypt, a less historical but nevertheless significant moment – by modern standards – was taking place 500km north on the banks of the Nile: the first Cairo Zone League title was won by Zamalek. They had also won the inaugural Egypt Cup the year before, which was at that time an infinitely more prestigious trophy, and so began the fight for football supremacy in the capital.
For a country steeped in antiquity, its record of organised football is patchy. Until 1948, there was no national championship in Egypt, despite a strong British colonial influence around the turn of the century. The Khedivate of Egypt, as it was known then, was nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire, although in practice was occupied by the British due to the large expatriate military population following their defeat of nationalist forces in 1882. There had long been an uneasy relationship between the imperial rulers and native citizens, but perhaps one of the Empire’s most enduring legacies, football, gained a foothold in society with the establishment of the Egypt Cup and the Cairo Zone League in 1922, the year Egyptian independence was formally declared.
In fact, fans give little precedence to those early league titles, mostly because they were contested by so few clubs. Zamalek Sports Club was founded in 1911, only part of which was dedicated to football, in the style of many major continental teams such as Barcelona or Olympiacos, although it has become by far the most famous and decorated, collecting an impressive 86 trophies in its 104-year history.
Established by George Marzbach, a Belgian lawyer with British citizenship of Jewish descent, Zamalek began life as an all-inclusive sporting and social society with an international flavour, with all nationalities welcome. As with a vast number of football clubs or sports societies around the world, all other Egyptian clubs had been founded by British expatriates eager to continue their virile amateur pursuit, but Marzbach broke the mould. Although his presidency of the Kasr El-Nil (Palace of the Nile) only lasted four years, he used his position as a high-ranking legal advisor to Sultan Husein Kamel to establish it as one of the leading organisations in the city.
It wasn’t only his nationality that set him apart; his connections to the establishment ensured a strong position that gave his enterprise stability. Sultan Bakoiah awarded him two honours in recognition of his legal career, during which he was appointed head of the joint courts in Cairo. When King Fouad was battling for authority over the constitution with the fiercely patriotic Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul, it was Marzbach who mediated. He was even one of the first people invited into Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter at a time when only one journalist was allowed to cover the archaeologist’s findings at such close quarters.
It was on the swelling tide of nationalism that later forced the British to cede independence to Egypt that Zamalek’s main rivals had been established four years earlier. Al Ahly, which translates as ‘The National’, was set up by Omar Lotfi Bek, who was indignant at the occupation of the British and their ban on native citizens enrolling as members in societies. As president of the Students Club, a major nationalistic political club founded in 1905, he wisely recognised the importance of not appearing to clash too violently with the British, and so enrolled an Englishman, finance ministry official Mitchell Ince, as president. Ince’s smart control of the club finances and influence to gain planning permission for their first premises were crucial to the successful birth of the club, but a year later, he was replaced by Azziz Ezat Pasha, and the club have stuck to their principles of being run by Egyptians, for Egyptians, ever since.
The first encounter between Al Ahly and Zamalek didn’t take place till 1917 with a pair of friendlies that finished 1-0 to either side, and the first competitive derby had to await the advent of the Egypt Cup the following decade when Zamalek won the semi-final replay 2-0 a further seven years later. The lack of serious competition, and the sporadic frequency of these early encounters, meant there wasn’t the fiery enmity which characterises the derby nowadays. In truth, the control of their own clubs was the burning issue for Egyptians; Al Ahly moved quickly to ensure they would not be run by outsiders, while Zamalek were only run by one more foreigner after Marzbach, their former left winger and Frenchman Nicolas Arfagi Bianchi. By the time of that first friendly match, they were both presided over by their own countrymen.
In what was almost certainly the only time a former Dulwich Hamlet player has ever so significantly shaped the destiny of a continent’s football, one man made his debut in that historic first game between the two for the Red Devils, and would go on to become “the father of Egyptian football”. Hussein Hegazi had returned from England at the outset of the First World War after studying Engineering at University College London and Cambridge University, where he became a football Blue. During this time he also dazzled the south London crowds with his sublime skill and outrageous cunning.
His moral fortitude was exemplified by his decision to stay loyal to the Isthmian League side in the face of overtures from Fulham, for whom he played a couple of games on invitation, but stopped short of signing forms with. “I was in a difficulty,” Hegazi told the press at the time. “For I wanted to play very much in League football, and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet who have been very good to me. I have decided to play for the Hamlet. I am sorry if Fulham are disappointed.”
He was rewarded with a part on an unbeaten tour of the Netherlands with his club side – they also later claimed a friendly win over Ajax – as well as a pioneering tour of Bohemia (the modern day Czech Republic) with the University College London team. The latter resulted in two heavy defeats to Slavia Prague after an exhausting journey that culminated in a 30-hour train journey, and an encouraging 2-2 draw against a combined Bohemian Universities side that had come mob-handed with seven of the Slavia players. The French league champions, Olympique Lillois AFC, were dispatched 3-0 thanks to Hegazi’s hat-trick on the return journey.
Read | The chaotic world of Al Ahly and their Ahlawy ultras
Towards the end of the First World War, Zamalek were already in dire trouble, with the foreign board of directors showing little interest in the upkeep of the club’s finances, and having not held a board meeting in a year, prompting the Egyptian members to wrest control of the club in 1923. When Hegazi and his former teammates joined Al Ahly in 1917, the balance of power looked destined to swing irrevocably towards the nationalist side, but after two years he jumped ship to the White Knights.
The loyalty he had shown in England wavered somewhat as he returned to Al Ahly in 1924, reportedly due to the new headquarters lacking bridge or billiards facilities, only to rejoin Zamalek in 1928 when he was punished by the club directors for not receiving his runners-up medal after losing the Egypt Cup final against Tersana. When he made his final stop on a highly unconventional career path, he found The Royals in disarray, with the football team disbanded.
In the flamboyant fashion that only Hegazi could manage, he nonchalantly pieced together a team of students who promptly beat the Red Devils 1-0, leading to a nickname that fanned the flames of the social divide between the rivals. “Everyone was talking about the students who beat the star-studded Al Ahly side,” said the Egyptian pundit Mohamed Seif, “so the fans started cheering on the students, that’s why they were dubbed Madraset El Fann Wil Handasa [School of Arts and Engineering].” Ironically, the club set up by students was seeing their own identity used against them as an inverted insult.
This seemingly flippant disregard for the moral and political stances of each club in favour of pursuing his dream of entertaining crowds and achieving success sparked the flames of sporting rivalry, and set the two giants on a collision course from which they would never leave. Such fluid movement between the clubs would be inconceivable in the modern footballing era.
Hossam Hassan is a national legend with a record 68 international goals in 176 appearances, who began his career at Al Ahly in the 1980s, spending twelve years at the club, interspersed with unsuccessful spells in Switzerland and Greece. After half a season in Saudi Arabia, he trespassed to Zamalek, for whom he spent four seasons, winning three league titles and an African Champions League, as well as managing them on two occasions, crimes for which many Ahly fans cannot forgive him. “You end your relationship with Al Ahly once you sign for El Zamalek,” Hussein Montasur of @AlAhlyInfo told me. “He’s a traitor in my opinion. The whole fan base considers him a Judas, but he’s still a great player on the pitch.”
Al Ahly has built a reputation as a highly principled club where the slightest transgression of an unspoken moral code is chased away. One player who never dreamed of crossing over to any other side, yet alone to Zamalek, was Mahmoud Mokhtar, El Tetsh, who played his entire 18-year career at Al Ahly. In 1924, El Tetsh – a reference to his short stature and incredible leap – was due to take a starring role in the Olympic Games in Paris, at the time the most prestigious stage in world football, coming as it did six years prior to the inaugural FIFA World Cup in Uruguay. The only problem was that he was also due to take his university examinations at the same time. Ever the faithful team player, he opted to travel, but his father insisted that he complete his diploma studies. It was left to ardent Al Ahly supporter Zaghloul, the Prime Minister and former Minister of Education, to intervene by arranging for the examination papers to be sent to the Egyptian Embassy in Paris for El Tetsh to complete without compromising his position as a symbol of Egypt’s sporting prowess.
One of Zamalek’s finest hours, their record 6-0 Cup final defeat of their bitter enemies in 1944 bizarrely demonstrates another side of the code upheld by the Club of the Century. The previous year, an offer extended to Al Ahly to play a series of friendly matches in Palestine was flatly rejected on their behalf by the Egyptian FA, with the threat of life bans issued if the club sanctioned the tour. Ahly’s board decided to allow 14 players to travel under the temporary name of Cairo Stars to circumvent punishment, but the players were banned anyway.
Their followers simmered with discontent because the man who issued the decision was not only president of the FA, but also president of Zamalek; they considered the punishment a blatant abuse of power to cynically cut them down. Forced to field a significantly weakened team in that final a year later, instead of feeling shame at the humiliating scoreline, they proudly proclaimed to have held their heads high in the face of perceived skulduggery.
Even after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, when the British-established monarchy was overthrown and the Republic was formed, Zamalek took their name from one of the few remaining affluent areas in the centre of the city. Ironically, the premises for Zamalek’s current headquarters lie just outside the eponymous district, while Al Ahly’s are inside, sharing Gezira Island with the Cairo Opera House, the Spanish and German embassies and the Hilton hotel.
The subsequent running of both clubs has contrasted somewhat. Zamalek have run through an astonishing 26 managers and 13 presidents (including caretakers and repeat incumbents) in the last 16 years, but before the revolution in 1952, they had only had four presidents in the previous 41 years of their existence. In contrast, Ahly have only had 17 presidents in total, with an average reign of six and a half years, but have changed manager 17 times in the last 15 years.
Zamalek followers’ most turbulent relationship with the boardroom in recent times is undoubtedly with Mortada Mansour, the current chairman. Not satisfied with control of a mere football club, Mansour has twice attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain election as the country’s President. His attitude towards the club’s White Knights ultras mirrors that of the security forces; that they need to be rounded up, and in some cases, incarcerated. He banned the impecunious ultras from training - for many of them, it is their only affordable access to the team – even electrifying the fences to ensure they couldn’t sneak in. He announced his attention to sell off the training ground itself to raise funds, thus wiping the spiritual meeting place of the ultras off the face of the earth, but so far he has met with stiffer resistance than he bargained for. One fan was even reportedly filmed hurling a bag of urine and excrement at the hated chairman, and so far the aggressive approach has held off any further senseless recriminations against the fans.
Read | Mohamed Aboutrika: national icon, activist and world-class footballer
Despite this relative turmoil at boardroom level, success has flowed towards the two giants, in particular Al Ahly, who celebrated their centenary by claiming their 100th trophy in 2007. Even more astonishingly, since then they have added a further 30 titles of all descriptions to officially become the most decorated club in world football. It seems as if there is little else to accomplish, other than continue to outdo their rival. “Al Ahly do not know when to stop,” said Nouran Hegazy, a colleague of Hussein Montasur at @AlAhlyInfo. “We have achieved all the possible local and African Championships, only the Club World Cup remains!”
Situated on the crux of three continents where religions and empires have collided for eons, it is hardly surprising that Cairo has been a fiery melting pot of all manner of battles in its long and chequered history. Sprawling from the mouth of the Nile delta out into the desert for hundreds of square miles, Africa’s largest urban area is shared by nouveau riche investment bankers and street merchants, Christians and Muslims, politicians and activists, but their lives are all defined by the common war between Al Ahly and Zamalek.
Despite all of the phenomenal records, the action of the fans is the defining feature of this derby. So intense is the atmosphere created at the 100,000 capacity Cairo International Stadium that foreign referees are frequently flown in to officiate, for fear of local bias or bowing to the pressure of the crowd. Wael Jabir is a Middle East football expert who believes the introduction of outside officials to improve matches is working. “It’s had a big effect, if not on the actual standard of refereeing, at least on the fans’ perspective of it,” he revealed to me. “Almost all Egyptians identify with either Al Ahly or Al Zamalek, so when a foreign ref is brought in, he is viewed by both sets of fans as a neutral, and his mistakes would then be attributed to incompetence rather than bias.”
Away from the stands a relatively new phenomenon has occurred in the last decade – ultras. Seven years ago, a handful of men began gathering to incubate their frustrations and passion for the Red Devils in a more organised manner. The authorities had long held a thinly-veiled disdain for the average man in the stadium, and after years of violence they had started to crack down on expressions of freedom and anti-establishment sentiments.
“The two biggest political parties in Egypt are Ahly and Zamalek,” Assad, founding leader of the Ahlawy ultras, told James Montague in his book When Friday Comes. “It’s bigger than politics. It’s more about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one-bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids getting paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes in the stadium to watch Ahly. It makes people’s lives happy. We are probably the only club in the world where the fans expect to win every single game.”
In 2005, Ahly almost did exactly that. They went an entire season unbeaten under the tutelage of the mythical Manuel José, a man who claims to be a better manager than his countryman, ‘The Special One’ himself, José Mourinho. In that season, their perfect record was only blemished by two draws in the league and a defeat in the World Club Cup. They went an astonishing 71 games, or nearly three years, without defeat, with José himself presiding over 20 trophies during his three spells in charge since the turn of the millennium.
The frustrations and hatred Ahly and Zamalek supporters felt towards each other had been boiling in the same pot for decades; partly fuelled by jealousy, partly by greed, partly by an obsession with chasing perfection. As things stand, Al Ahly lead the trophy count and the head-to-head record comfortably, both domestically and in continental competitions. The well-documented role played by the Ahlawy ultras in mobilising the population against Hosni Mubarak’s regime took the undercurrent of anger to a whole new level. The enemy had become the police as much as each other, especially after the most horrific tragedy in Egyptian football; the Port Said disaster, where 72 Ahlawy followers lost their lives.
In a match against Al Masry which Ahly lost to three late goals almost exactly three years ago, the home fans stormed towards the outnumbered Ahly fans brandishing knives, rocks and fists. As the visitors fled, begging the police to intervene, eyewitnesses reported the security forces simply standing by allowing utter carnage to unfold. Exit gates had been locked before the final whistle, as layer upon layer of fans were crushed in the panic, while others were severely wounded, finding refuge in their team’s dressing room. In the aftermath, Ahlawy accused the police of staging, or at the very least abetting, the murderous spree of violence. They had been more than an irritant to the Mubarak regime, but the constant feature was the attitude of the security forces, who desperately tried to prevent them frequently voicing their stance in the only remaining arena of truly free speech – the football stadium.
“Living under Mubarak was like living under communism in Eastern Europe,”Assad continues. “The whole concept of any independent organisation didn’t exist, not unions, not political parties… then we started to organise the football ultras. It was just sport then. But to them it was the youth, in big numbers – very smart people who could mobilise themselves quickly. They feared us.” On the streets and in Tahrir Square, the ultras had fought back side by side when others didn’t have the focus, thanks to their unity and experience in dealing with the heavy-handed treatment of the police.
When a march to the headquarters of the army in Alexandria was organised in protest at the lenient sentencing of many of the officers on duty in Port Said, Ahlawy were joined by the White Knights and local side Ittihad’s Blue Magic group. “We’ve wasted 20 years hating each other,” Blue Magic’s leader told Assad. “Let’s make peace.”
Whether the fan groups will be able to do this remains to be seen, but one thing that no manner of repressive regime or time can wash away is the pure, unadulterated rivalry between Al Ahly and Zamalek; one of the very finest examples in the sporting world.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint