Tracing its heritage back longer than any other nation, Egypt is a land of raw, natural and architectural wonder. Situated at the crossroads between continental Africa and the Middle East, the Gift of the Nile is definitely a must-visit nation on anyone’s bucket list. The capital city of Cairo is home to the unbelievable Pyramids of Giza, African/Arab infused cuisine, rolling Saharan sand dunes and arguably the cradle of civilisation, Egypt ticks all the right boxes.
In a country of such natural, historical and cultural beauty, it is incredibly hard to think of any way in which the country’s appealing makeup could be tarnished.
However, twice a year the nation comes to a standstill as 75,000 screaming fans filter into the Cairo International Stadium for one of the world’s most violent rivalries. In a match-up that commonly results in fatalities, this is not one for the faint-hearted. This is the Cairo Derby. This is Al Ahly versus Zamalek.
Founded on 24th April 1907, Al Ahly Sporting Club – also translated as “The National Sporting Club” – is one of Africa’s most successful football clubs. Known as the CAF Club of the 20th Century, Al Ahly was founded by the president of a Cairo based team known as the High School Students Club. Established for political reasons, the new Al Ahly Sporting Club paved way for students to study and enjoy exercise and leisure at the same time.
Occupied by British forces at the time of the club’s formation, Al Ahly’s first president came in the form of Englishman, Mitchel Ince. As an advisor to the Ministry of Finance, Ince was able to fund the club. However, just a year later, Ince stepped down allowing space for Al Ahly’s first Egyptian president to move in, Aziz Azzat. Azzat had found that despite the club’s main goal to support political viewpoints, the students had already developed a strong love for the game, prompting the construction of the team’s first stadium.
No more than 10 years later, Al Ahly’s sense of nationalism and patriotism meant that they wanted to showcase their strength. However, they didn’t want to do this against any opponent, but against an allied military team and this came in the form of Zamalek Sporting Club.
Founded just four years after Al Ahly, a club then known as Qasr El Nil was formed by a Belgian lawyer in 1911. This new team became the first in Egypt to be formed from its non-English expatriate communities. Unlike its nationalistic counterparts, Qasr El Nil formed its own identity making itself clear that it was a club for all people and no specific economic, social or ethnic standpoint.
As a result of the ongoing revolutions and conflicts, the club spent many years changing its location in and around Cairo. It wasn’t until after an army coup against the King in 1952 that Qasr El Nil officially changed its name to Al Zamalek Sporting Club.
Defying what was seen as ‘socially correct’ by many Egyptian nationalists and the supporters of Al Ahly only added fuel to the fire as Zamalek became the club known for refusing to conform. This fire would then only grow larger and larger as the tension between the two clubs transformed into one of football’s most violent rivalries.
Seen as the Real Madrid and Barcelona of Egypt, Al Ahly and Zamalek are the country’s two most prestigious clubs. Boasting most of the national team’s roster, the two giants have produced many Egyptian starlets of past and present.
Unfortunately, Liverpool‘s poster boy hasn’t featured for either team but most notably would be Huddersfield Town’s new acquisition, Ramadan Sobhi. Having only featured 55 times for Al Ahly between 2014 and 2016, it seemed to be enough to impress as Sobhi made his way to the English Premier League to join Stoke City back in 2016. Seen as a fast-paced and effective winger, Sobhi recently left the relegated Potters for Huddersfield Town.
Like any rivalry, a player must be willing to receive anything that comes their way when moving to the arch-rival of his previous club and these two Egyptian giants are no exception. Due to the intensity of hatred for each other, only a few players have dared to cross the divide in the entirety of the club’s history.
Looking back to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, one may remember the name of Essam El Hadary. The 45-year-old goalkeeper was the oldest player selected for the latest edition of the world’s most-watched event and was praised for his ability despite arguably being past his sell-by date.
Before running riot in Russia however, El Hadary spent most of his career, like many fellow Egyptians – at Al Ahly. Having made over 400 appearances for the Red Devils, El Hadary won an astonishing eight Egyptian Premier League titles, four Egypt Cups, four Egyptian Super Cups, four CAF Champions League titles, three CAF Super Cups, one Arab Club Champions Cup, two Arab Super Cups and miraculously got himself on the scoresheet in a CAF Super Cup final against South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs.
However, El Hadary’s time at the ‘National’ club came to an end and just two years later, he did the unthinkable. In December 2010, Essam El Hadary joined Cairo rivals Zamalek. The 6″3 shot-stopper only made four appearances for the White Knights before a transfer to Al Merreikh just a year later. It is unknown as to what caused his brief stint at Egypt’s second most successful club. But, without a doubt, El Hadary certainly received some backlash from both sets of faithful fans.
On par with the likes of Galatasaray and Beşiktaş when it comes to noisy and passionate fans, Al Ahly and Zamalek are Egypt’s best. But, just like it so commonly happens in Turkey, this passion more often than not spills out into violence.
Dubbed the ‘world’s most violent derby’ by many news outlets, the Cairo Derby truly takes football and its annoying sidekick – hooliganism – to the next level.
Known as ‘Ultras Ahlawy’, the fans of Al Ahly Sporting Club are best known for their tifo and pyrotechnic displays. On the surface, this group of loyal subjects appear to be the same as most ultras groups found across the world of football. However, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find something that isn’t so common. The motto of ‘Together Forever’ is taken quite literally as the fans can be seen following their club as a collective. Rather than focusing their full support on the football club, Ultras Ahlawy also follow the club’s basketball, volleyball and handball teams religiously.
Zamalek too have their own group of ultras known as ‘Ultras White Knights’. The Zamalek faithful can be found at every game cheering the team on until the final whistle, no matter the outcome of the match. Their tifo displays and pyrotechnic work rival that of Al Ahly, but their motto is slightly more chilling. The translation of “Brotherhood in blood and fans of the free public” is also, unfortunately, taken very literally as clashes between ENPI Club back in 2015 saw the death of 20 people.
Despite the excitement and passion surrounding the matches between the two clubs, fatalities are often a common occurrence. With both sets of fans calling the Cairo International Stadium their home, a Cairo Derby turns the 75,000 seater bowl into a ticking-time-bomb with the City of a Thousand Minarets holding its breath.
THE TURNING POINT
The Cairo Derby becomes so intensely violent, that more often than not, foreign referees are brought in to officiate games as most Egyptian referees refuse to do so. The number of fights and casualties has reduced since the implementation of Egypt’s authoritarian regime.
The relationship between the Egyptian people and the authorities has never been ‘on good terms’ and this especially applies to football. Violence and tensions between the clubs did not quell as much as the government had liked, meaning that special measures had to be put in place.
In 2011, the Cairo Derby was briefly removed from Egyptian football with the match being played behind closed doors. Ultras of both Al Ahly and Zamalek shockingly came together in an attempt to free their beloved derby, despite their conflicting views and unrivalled hatred towards one another. As a collective, the mass of football-mad fans became one in a protest against the authorities and the president, Hosni Mubarak. The Ultras Ahlawya and Ultras White Knights fought off the oppressive government and prolonged the uprising taking place in Egypt at the time.
However, the fans’ actions against the regime did not go unnoticed. A year later, Al Ahly travelled to Port Said in a match-up against Al Masry with no indication that the events that were about to unfold would become of the world’s worst football-related incidents.
There was an unsettling atmosphere about the game, even before kick-off. The Al Masry fans became increasingly agitated and violent as the game was delayed by 30 minutes due to many of them spilling onto the pitch. However, the real tragedy didn’t take place until the end of the game. Fans of Al Masry stormed the pitch armed with bottles, knives and other projectiles seeking only to cause harm. Players fled the pitch leading the mass of armed fans to target the travelling group of Al Ahly supporters.
Instinct kicked in and the Al Ahly fans attempted to escape, but, to their horror, many of the gates were still locked. Eyewitness accounts recall watching police and security at the match “doing nothing to help” and “refusing to open the gates”. Video footage supporting these claims spurred the world of football to speculate that it could possibly be the government’s way of getting revenge.
The carelessness and unwillingness of police officers and security to help the fleeing fans resulted in the death of 74 people with around 500 more badly injured. The then head of FIFA referred to the event as “a black day for football”.
THE BRAGGING RIGHTS
Both Al Ahly and Zamalek are not only seen as two of the most dominant clubs in Egypt, but also the continent of Africa itself. Since the creation of both the red and whites, the two sides have played each other over 150 times in all competitions.
Having won the Egyptian Premier League 40 times and boasting a massive 36 Egypt Cup titles, Al Ahly have dominated the football scene in Egypt throughout its history. Holding the record for the most CAF Champions League titles (8), Al Ahly have won 24 international titles, with the only team in the world surpassing that number is Real Madrid with 25. Zamalek aren’t far behind as their trophy cabinet holds an impressive 12 Egyptian Premier League titles and 26 Egypt Cups. They are runners-up in terms of CAF Champions League titles (5), losing out to their bitter rivals who continue to steal the limelight. However, Zamalek hold the rights to the biggest derby win over Al Ahly beating them 6-0 in the 1944 Egypt Cup Final.
Currently, the Red Devils have the edge over the White Knights winning more derby games in both the league and cup with the record as follows;
League: Al Ahly – 43, Draws – 47, Zamalek – 35
Cup: Al Ahly – 16, Draws – 5, Zamalek – 10
The Cairo Derby is a must-watch match for any football fan out there. From the tifo and pyrotechnic displays, the constant chanting of the ultras to the overall fact that these two clubs are deeply rooted in history as two of the sport’s finest clubs, there is a lot to shout about when talking about this fixture.
Despite all the excitement and passion, however, there is no denying that this game is arguably the world’s most dangerous football match. With the fatalities and casualties that come with the derby, it seems that the tensions between the two teams are only going to get stronger. Thanks to political, social and cultural occurrences the rivalry has gone past the point of no return.
Whether you be red or white, native or foreign, Al Ahly or Zamalek, the most important thing to remember is that regardless of where your loyalties lie, we are all united underneath the enormous umbrella that we call football.