By Ahmed Nada – @GizaGooner – For The Football Hipster’s Podcast
Welcome to Egypt: a two-team league where the champions can lose the cup to a team from the third tier, and the fifth-placed team can win the African champions’ league. Home to the most successful club in the world, the only team to ever go an entire season with no losses, nor draws; the very same country whose national team is the most successful one in Africa.
Let’s start with a guide to the teams in the current, 2015-16 season. There are 18 teams (we’ll get back to that), and we’ll have their names, the meanings of their names, the city they hail from, and a brief description of what to expect from them; plus, where applicable, a popular nickname. (Note: ‘Al/el’ means ‘the’, and won’t be taken into alphabetical consideration.):
Al Ahly, Cairo, ‘The National [club]’, The Red Devils: The most successful team in the world, with 131 titles in their trophy cabinet, Al Ahly have been struggling since 2014, despite winning the 2013-14 title. They’re currently rebuilding, and much of their ageing squad is supplemented with U-20s. They’re a very defensive team who play on the break very often.
Aswan, Aswan, the city’s name: Newly-promoted Aswan are minnows in the league. Last relegated in 2003-04, this is their seventh non-consecutive season in the top flight, and they’re competent on the ball, and have shown defensive resilience.
El Dakhleya, Cairo, nickname for the ‘Ministry of Interior Affairs & Security’: One of the police force’s two official clubs in the top flight, El Dakhleya ended the 2014-15 season in twelfth place. A perennial mid-table team that have been in the top flight since their first promotion in 2010-11, they’re very unremarkable
El Entag el Harby, Cairo, ‘The Military Industrial Complex’: One of the three military-owned clubs in the top flight, they’re another team stuck in mid-table obscurity. First promoted in the 2009-10 season, – where they came seventh in their first season – they were relegated in 2010-11 and earned their promotion back this season. A solid, counter-attacking side, they’re not to be taken lightly.
ENPPI, Cairo, initialism meaning ‘ENgineering for the Petroleum & Process Industries’: One of a nice couple of oil-rich clubs, ENPPI is owned by an oil company of the same name, and has been a consistent challenger for the top four since their promotion in 2002-03, they’ve been successful playing possession-based football, and have been challenging for cups.
Ghazl el Mahalla, El Mahalla El Kubra, ‘El Mahalla’s silk industry’, The Blue Ghosts: A former mid-table club, Ghazl el Mahalla grind out the occasional upset, and have been a notoriously difficult place to travel due to their very aggressive, physical style of play. They were relegated in 2013-14, and since their promotion this season, have been on the longest losing run thus far.
Haras el Hodood, Alexandria, ‘The border guards’, El Sawahel (the coast guard): The second of the aforementioned three military-owned clubs, Haras el Hodood have done quite well for themselves, often featuring in the top six, or top eight. Otherwise unremarkable, the club is often compared to Everton in its play-style and perennial challenge for the top 6.
Al Isma’ily, Al Ismailia, ‘The Isma’ilia club’, The Yellow Dragons: Often the third most successful club in the league, Al Isma’ily have often come within the top four, or top three. They play possession-based, slow build-up football that’s been compared to a slow ‘monster’ building up to a fantastic finish, hence their nickname.
Al Ittihad al Sakandary, Alexandria, ‘Alexandria United’, The King of Alexandria: Formerly the most successful team in Alexandria’s league (more on that later), the team were the first team to endorse the Egyptian FA’s creation in 1921-22. They’ve since slumped, and fallen into lower-table obscurity. A quick, counter-attacking team, they often concede, but make up for it by scoring in hauls.
Al Masry, Port Sa’id, ‘The Egyptian [club]’, The Green Eagles: The most successful team in the Canal league by far, with 17 titles, they were among the last to join the FA; a decision which makes them an unpopular team with the FA, which was reflected in their swift relegation following the Port Sa’id stadium disaster in 2011-12 (more on that coming up). They’ve since earned their promotion back into the league, and are a strong top six team. They play an exciting, fast-paced counter-attack, regardless of their opposition, and have slain giants in their time.
Misr lel Makasa, Al Faiyoum, ‘Egyptian clearing agency’: A newly-reformed club, they were languishing in lower-league obscurity as ‘Al Faiyoumi’ before being bought out by the company that’s now their namesake. They quickly earned a promotion in 2009-10, and achieved a perennial top four position, switching with Al Isma’ily for third and fourth place each season.
El Mokaweloon el ‘Arab, Cairo, ‘The Arab Contractors’, The Mountain Wolves: Lead by legendary Egyptian coach Hassan Shehata (more on him later), the club has been on a resurgence. Going from mid-table obscurity to a firm position in the top six (albeit slipping to seventh last season), the club has been seeing cup success as of late, and has been a popular counter-attacking side as of late. Also noteworthy is that they won the Egyptian cup and super-cup double in 2004, while in the third division.
Petrojet, Suez, their parent company’s name, The Egyptian Blaugrana: A constant worry for teams across the league, Petrojet play a Barcelona-esque possession game that often breaks even the best teams down. They have, however, lacked a competent attacking force of late, and have slumped down to the lower echelon of the table. Ones to never miss an opportunity for an upset, many of their points come from the top of the table.
Smouha, Alexandria, named after their neighbourhood, The Blue Wave: As their nickname suggests, Smouha are a counter-attacking team with a wealth of young talent. Following the crumble of Al Ahly in 2014, many of their players were bought out by Smouha, who are seen as new money in the league. Despite all of this, they rest in the middle of the pack, often losing to the stronger teams atop the table.
Tala’ae el Geish, Cairo, ‘The army’s vanguard’, The Military’s Finest: The last, and most successful of the military teams in the country, the vanguard have been challenging for top eight for a while, despite their past success. They play a fine, slick, possession-based football that relies on starving their opponents of the ball.
Wadi Degla, Cairo, named after the Degla valley: The youngest club in the top flight, Wadi Degla were founded by Lierse SK in 2002, in conjunction with Arsenal. The team boasts the second best youth academy in the country, and often counter-attacks with young, hungry fervour. They were introduced to the Premier League in 2009-10, and have been consistently in the top six ever since.
Al Zamalek, Cairo, named after the Zamalek flower, The White Knights: The reigning champions, Al Zamalek are consistently in the top two teams in the country, and are firmly the second-most successful team in the country, with 85 honours. Al Zamalek are, by far, the most successful counter-attacking team in the country, and have consistently broken teams down with ease.
With the teams out of the way, what derbies are there to look out for? The two main derbies in the country are the Alexandria derby, – between Al Ittihad al Sakandary & Smouha – and the Cairo derby, the largest derby in the Middle East, Africa, and one of the largest in the world. While technically a third of the league’s games are Cairo derbies, due to the immense number of Cairo-based clubs, the Cairo derby itself is between giants Al Ahly & Al Zamalek.
While it hasn’t been contested with actual fans in attendance since the 2011-12 season, it remains the most hotly-contested derby in the country. Al Ahly have been the most successful team in the derby, with 60 victories to Al Zamalek’s 34, with points being distributed evenly 56 times. The derby was first contested in 1929, when both teams met in the Premier League for the first time, with Al Ahly winning 0-1. The derby is a must-see match for any Egyptian football fan, especially foreign fans who aren’t accustomed to such heated affairs.
The league’s history is one of extremes: from the heights of 2004-2010, to the slump and cancellation of the league altogether. Let’s start with the beginnings: football in Egypt has been a popular sport for quite a while, with the first leagues being contested on a local level (the Alexandria league, canal league, Cairo league, and southern league) before the Egyptian FA’s instatement in 1922. The earliest Egyptian football league was around 1899, with the first Premier League fixture being in the inaugural 1948-49 season, when all four leagues agreed to the Premier League being formed; the last of which was the canal league, led by Al Masry.
Success throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s lead to a rise in its popularity among the Arab states, whose leagues began importing Egyptian players. A dip in form in the 90’s lead to Egypt’s fall from the international footballing pedestal, and a reform was needed.
By the early 2000’s, the Egyptian FA announced that it would appoint a group of players, the same group that was successful in the 80’s with their clubs and the national team, to reform the league structure and aforementioned national team. This team, led by Al Zamalek legend Hassan Shehata, called for the league to change from a 20-team format to an 18-team one, in order to allow for higher-quality match-ups.
Upon the rise of an 18-team league, lower-echelon teams began producing young talent, which was also prompted by a new rule: a maximum of three foreign players per club, a rule which continues to pay dividends. The league remains a hotbed of young talent, with the average age of an Egyptian Premier League player hovering around 24.8. At the time of its reformation, around the 2002-03 season, the league’s average was 22.6, a golden generation.
That very same golden generation made history, delivering a record three African cups to the national team in a row, from 2006, to 2008, and finally in 2010; further making history by winning every single game along the way in 2010. Spirits were high when, in 2011, 21 of the 23 players in that historic side retired from international duty. The seventh African cup, delivered in 2010, would be Egypt’s last, as the team failed to qualify immediately after that. Currently, the team continues its bid for African glory once more, having missed out on the 2012, 2013, and 2015 cups’ qualification entirely.
Regardless of the national team’s failings, the league has been on a slow resurgence since its cancellation in 2012. The 2010-11 season was suspended from January 27th to April 13th, 2011, due to the revolution at the time. This lead to an exodus of players from the top clubs to Portuguese clubs, other Arab states, or lower-league teams, as the lower leagues were not suspended.
The 2011-12 season was set to be Al Zamalek’s return to glory after a long trophy drought, second to Haras el Hodood, which they would’ve faced if not for the Port Sa’id stadium disaster: Al Masry were up against Al Ahly, and Al Masry swiftly scored three goals, to set the result at 3-0 around half time. The circumstances of what happened next are still under investigation, and this is an article on football, so we won’t get into it. Suffice to say, Al Masry were relegated, and Al Ahly were rewarded with a controversial three points. The league was cancelled, outright, a week later.
The following season, 2012-13, was cancelled in July due to the incidents in 2013 – whether it’s a coup or revolution is, once again, political; it doesn’t belong here. Either way, the league ended with Al Ahly & Al Zamalek tied on points atop the league, and the league was not awarded to either team.
2013-14 saw a controversial decision to split the league into two, nine-team groups, with the top two of each group facing off in a championship round, an idea proposed for the 2012-13 season. Group A was topped by Al Ahly & Smouha, the latter of which surprised many, as they’d been given a significant boost by investors. Group B was topped by Al Zamalek, and Petrojet, the latter’s possession football passed most teams off the pitch that season.
Al Zamalek’s dreams were dashed by Smouha in the championship round, as they finished in third, above Petrojet, below Smouha. Al Ahly finished as champions by a single goal difference, as they’d been tied with Smouha, on seven points each.
The following season, 2014-15, was destined to be Al Zamalek’s year from the onset: Al Ahly had several players retire, while Smouha’s backers were less inclined to spend as much as before. Al Zamalek romped through the league, finishing with 87 points, above Al Ahly with 79. This was the highest number of points any team had gotten until that point, which was aided by the league featuring 20 teams. Five teams were relegated that season, in order to change it to an 18 team format once more.
Finally, I must address Al Ahly’s record-shattering run in 2004-05: Al Ahly finished the season with a quadruple, winning the CAF Champions League, Premier League, Egyptian cup, Egyptian supercup, and coming fifth in the Club World Cup. The club finished with 26 matches won out of 26, playing in a diminished 14-team league (due to a proposal to further decrease the number of teams). However, official records state that they drew two matches, which were counted as draws retrospectively. Regardless, the record still stands: the only professional season with no losses, nor draws, in any top flight in the world.
Al Ahly would go on to go unbeaten in the next 14-team season, 2005-06, with 23 wins and 3 draws. Al Ahly further went on to beat Real Madrid 1-0 in a friendly, before coming third in the Club World Cup that season.
I would go on, though this article has gone on long enough already. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this incoherent traversal through Egyptian football.