Battle to rule in Africa

Huge crowds, extravagant financial rewards, highly organised teams forcing mind-numbingly dull tactical draws — it happens in Africa, too. On Friday, Zamalek, of Egypt, host Raja Casablanca, of Morocco, in the second leg of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions’ League final, with $1-million going to the winners.

A crowd of more than 100 000 will jam into the Cairo stadium (capacity 80 000), making a finals aggregate of close to 200 000 after the first leg at an overstuffed Mohammed V stadium (nominal capacity also 80 000) in Casablanca a fortnight ago.

Zamalek turned up in Casablanca for the first leg determined to grind out a 0-0 draw and they did just that with a 4-5-1 formation that often became 6-3-1.

Zamalek’s Brazilian coach, Carlos Roberto Capral, did not even have the good grace to apologise. ‘In the first leg we did not play, we fought,” he said. ‘In Cairo we will play in a different way and in front of 100 000 fans it will be very difficult for Raja.”

The legendary Egypt striker, Hossam Hassan, who first won this tournament 15 years ago and who has more than 150 international caps, took Capral’s instructions to fight a shade too literally: he and his twin brother, Ibrahim, spent the match

elbowing Raja players and then rolling on the ground in simulated pain.

So why will the Cairo stadium be as full as an egg, as they say in Morocco, on Friday? Well, first of all because Zamalek should win and may even, on home soil, do so with some style.

Second, the fans will show up because the CAF Champions’ League is rapidly becoming a serious competition.

For a start, unlike in Europe, you have to win your national league to enter. Then there is the money. ‘A million dollars is a big incentive,” Zamalek’s playmaker, Hazam Emam, says. ‘But it is not just for us — that sort of money will really help the club out.”

Such altruism aside, shining in the champions’ league has become a smart career move for players aiming to impress the array of scouts looking to pick up a bargain for the January sales. ‘I hope to win the cup and then go back to Europe,” says Emam, who was once a target for Manchester United but chose to sign for Udinese instead, before returning to Egypt with his tail between his legs.

More than providing fish in a barrel for European scouts, the champions’ league has been a godsend for Africa’s rich clubs.

Who needs a scouting network when you can sign the best players you play against? Raja’s attack will be spearheaded by Senegal striker Ali Diallo, whom the Moroccans signed after he kept knocking them out of continental competitions when he played for Jeanne d’Arc in his homeland.

This year’s final also highlights North African dominance of African club football. Zamalek’s countrymen and deadly rivals, Al Ahly, are African champions, while Algerians JS Kabylie have just won the the CAF Cup, the equivalent of the Uefa Cup, for an unprecedented third straight year.

The North Africans have more money than sub-Saharan African teams, so they keep their best players.

Friday’s decider will be worth watching. Zamalek will have to attack and they will do so on what the Raja coach, Walter Meeuws (the former Belgium player and manager), calls ‘the best pitch in Africa”, in front of what will be the biggest crowd in the world this year — and for a huge purse. It could well be a good, attacking game. And if it’s not, well, that’s modern football for you. —

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