Africa’s greatest teams #1: Al-Ahly

Ahead of Saturday’s Caf Champions League final, Goal celebrate Africa’s greatest ever team…look away now, Kaizer Chiefs fans!

Guest Feature | Lotfi Wada

Al-Ahly’s Golden Generation achieved more in the continental arena than any other side in African football history, with a crop of players who won everything at club and international level. They stand unparalleled at the pinnacle of African club achievement.

However, coming into the summer of 2004, Al-Ahly had just completed a disastrous season.

A loss in the Egyptian Cup final to second division side Arab Contractors, succumbing in the Egyptian Premier League to bitter foe SC Zamalek, and most importantly, a pitiful elimination at home vs Al Hilal in the Caf Champions League, left the Red Devils with no choice but to reinforce their squad.

Ahly splashed the cash to sign some of the Egyptian league’s finest stars in response.

They joined an already talented squad that was led by a promising attacker named Mohamed Aboutrika, who had joined the club the winter before.

Ahly’s aspirations when approaching the Champions League the next season were to lift the trophy. Manuel Jose’s men brushed past giants like Raja Casablanca, Enyimba, and bitter foe Zamalek in the semis to reach the final.

Matched against Etoile du Sahel, the Red Devils were able to snatch a third Champions League crown courtesy of academy product Osama Hosny and fresh signings Aboutrika and Mohamed Barakat.

The red machine was born.

Despite a bumpier ride the next year, Ahly and their Galacticos reached the final again, where they met another Tunisian side—CS Sfaxien.

Waleed Souliman-Mohamed Barakat-Al Ahly

Forced to a painful 1-1 draw in Cairo in the first leg, the Red Devils had their backs to the wall for the return match in Rades.

In a terrific atmosphere, and in front of fans merely waiting for the locals to be crowned, Ahly ultimately demonstrated the gulf in class between themselves and their opponents.

From a desperate long ball from Mohamed Shady, Emad Moteab’s deflection fell to Aboutrika’s boot, and they playmaker duly smashed it past Ahmed Jawachi.

It was a goal which perfectly embodied Ahly’s strategy: the coupling of academy graduates and experienced stars.

From nowhere, they had won the cup and silenced Rades in the coldest manner possible.

This fourth title was surely their most dramatic, but also earned them a spot in the revamped Club World Cup.

Powered by the fabled Bermuda triangle (Barakat, Aboutrika and Flavio), the Red Devils were in Japan to improve on their disastrous 2005 exit.

Ahmed Fathi - Hossam Ashour - Aboutrika - Gedo - Ahly

Pitted against Oceania champions Auckland City, two gorgeous strikes from Flavio and Aboutrika saw them through the semis. Locking horns against future champions Internacional, Ahly would bow down with honour after giving the South Americans an excellent fight.

Against Club America in the third-placed playoff, Aboutrika’s flamboyant display underpinned a historic bronze medal which remained, until recently, the finest result by an African team in the Club World Cup.

After bagging another Caf Super Cup weeks later, defeating Etoile du Sahel in the final, Ahly set their sights on doing what nobody else did before: winning a gargantuan treble of Champions Leagues.

A typical Ahly campaign, full of experience and match mastery led to the Red Devils qualifying for their third final in a row. Half of the job was done; they had now to lock horns with Etoile again.

Psychologically and tactically advantaged after picking up a draw in Sousse, Manuel Jose’s men appeared in pole position to achieve what nobody had done beforehand.

In front of their fans and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak himself, Ahly were upset by a nothing-to-lose Etoile side and had a trophy that seemed promised to them snatched away at the death.

The Red Goliath were on their knees after missing out on an opportunity to write even more African football history with a colossal three-in-a-row.

2008 would be the year of redemption, as a squad containing many members of the Egypt team which steamrolled Ivory Coast and Cameroon in Ghana entered the competition with one goal in mind: to take another continental crown.

A superb campaign resulted in Ahly reaching a fourth final in four years—equalling Tout Puissant Mazembe’s record from the 1960s—and they duly took a comfortable 2-0 victory from the home leg at Cairo International Stadium.

Manuel Jose - Hossam Al-Badri - Mohamed Yousuf - Ahly

In the return match in Garoua, Ahmed Hassan flicked Ahly into the lead, but goals from Lassina Abdoul Karim and Ousmailia Baba took Coton to within one goal of success.

In the 89th minute, however, the mercurial Barakat earned a penalty, which was calmly converted by Shady to seal the title.

With calm, experience and a gulf of class separating them from the rest of their opponents, the Red Devils, led by the professor Manuel Jose, won an impressive third Champions League in four years to overtake their biggest rivals SC Zamalek and become the club with the greatest number of Champions League won.

Ahly obviously entered their favourite tournament in 2009 as arch-favourites, but were stunned at home by one of the surprise packages of the competition: Kano Pillars.

Relegated to the Confederation Cup, the Red Devils were cowed by inexperienced Angolans Santos after winning the first leg 3-0 in Cairo.

This ultimately marked the end of five years of near-undiluted domination from an extraordinary generation who reached four Champions League finals, won three, and was at the core of Egypt’s finest Afcon successes.

Considering their impact both in Caf competitions and on the bobbly pitches of the African Cup of Nations—at a time when European stars were kings—this Ahly generation is undoubtedly the greatest crop of players African club football has ever seen.

Never have a generation left an impression of dominance, through their displays and through trophies like this golden pool of players.

Although strongly affected by the Port Said catastrophe, the few survivors of this generation (Aboutrika, Barakat, Wael Gomaa) coupled with talents like Abdallah El-Said and Walid Soliman would return to glory three years later after seeing off Esperance.

Ahly would proceed to clinch another Caf Super Cup, and would win their latest Champions League crown in 2013, defeating surprise package Orlando Pirates in the final.

It proved to be the swansong for Aboutrika, a truly magical playmaker.

Further Caf Champions League final reading 

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