Al-Ahly's unprecedented success marred by racist undertones
Al-Ahly is perhaps Africa’s biggest football club and this Saturday could bring Africa’s biggest prize back to Cairo for a record tenth time.
The Red Giants take on South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs in the final of the African Champions League, a competition that features the best teams from all over the continent, in Casablanca. As well as the prestigious trophy, there is another prize at stake: showing Egypt and North Africa that there is coaching talent to the south and, perhaps, being a catalyst for change.
Pitso Mosimane is South African and is the head coach of Al-Ahly. He is the first coach that the club has ever had who is not from Egypt or Europe and South America, the two continents that have dominated world football ever since it became an international sport.
At the best of times, coaching Al-Ahly is not easy – not despite the record of success but because of it. The Cairo club has won an amazing 42 Egyptian league titles, 37 Egypt Cups and many more other trophies. Trophies are expected.
Despite the trophies won in Egypt and the possibility of a second hugely successful season, Mosimane has faced regular criticism since arriving in Cairo
Mosimane has delivered since arriving last September. He was in charge of the league title and champions league successes, though he arrived near the end of the season.
In February, the 56-year-old took Al-Ahly to third place at the delayed 2020 Club World Cup, the competition that features the champions of each continent, equalling the club’s best-ever performance. As things stand, Al-Ahly is very much in the title race at home with bitter Cairo rivals Zamalek and are expected to retain their African crown on Saturday.
Yet despite the trophies won in Egypt and the possibility of a second hugely successful season, Mosimane has faced regular criticism since arriving in Cairo.
“At a club like Al-Ahly, then many ex-players will have their opinions and will ask ‘why did he get the job and not one of us’?’ Mosimane told The New Arab. “I am the first Sub-Saharan coach and so perhaps there will be criticism especially from someone from outside. I can only do my best and if others think they can do better then they can have their opinion.”
Others do have that opinion. “Pitso Mosimane is poor in managing matches, so far he hasn’t left an imprint on me,” said former Al-Ahly legend Mohamed Emara in February after the team was eliminated from the Club World Cup by European powerhouse Bayern Munich. “Regardless of the tournaments that were won, so far, his imprint is not strong. I think Al Ahly fans agree with me on this matter.”
The attacks have been noticed in the coach’s homeland. “Another day, another scathing attack on Pitso Mosimane in Egypt,” was the headline in The South African in January. This was in response to comments from Reda Abdel Aal, the coach of struggling second division team Tanta SC when he said: “If he coached a second division team he would leave after one game. Mosimane cannot manage in the second division. He is a head coach with very limited abilities.”
Being South African
Criticism comes with the territory in such a job but even in Egypt, there are those who feel the barbs coming Mosimane’s way are driven by his nationality.
Mido, one of Egypt’s most famous former stars who played in England, Italy, France and the Netherlands, is one. "The attack on Mosimane is racist. If he was a European, he would not have been subjected to this criticism,” Mido said in June.
"If Mosimane can bring home the African title to Cairo for the tenth time... as well as stopping criticism, it may help other North African clubs become more open to the coaching talent that the rest of the continent has to offer"
Ahmed Hassan made 185 appearances for Egypt, until June an international record, and believes that the criticism is down to one simple fact. “He’s a distinguished coach and a tactician at the highest level, and his problem is that he is African because the public and the media are used to foreigners,” Hassan told OnTime Sport television.
In Europe, coaches from country to country. In the English Premier League, there are managers from Germany, Spain, France and Portugal, a pattern repeated in most leading soccer nations.
With European nations successful, it is understandable that coaches from there are sought after all around the world but even in Asia, there is some intra-continental movement. There have been numerous Korean coaches in Japan and China and Japanese coaches in South East Asia for example. In the Middle East and North Africa however, the preference is for coaches that are either local or come from Europe or South America.
Perhaps a new generation of African coaches will make a difference, coaches who became world-famous as players for big clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues. “Former stars like Côte d’Ivoire’s Kolo Touré, Ghana’s Michael Essien and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o are all cutting their teeth in coaching or have declared their intention to be managers,” said respected African journalist Mehar Mezahi,
If Mosimane can bring home the African title to Cairo for the tenth time to add to what is already an impressive haul in Egypt then as well as stopping the criticism, it may help other North African clubs become more open to the coaching talent that the rest of the continent has to offer.
That is what the coach hopes. “I’m humbled if there is a trigger‚ or I might be a part of a catalyst for change for our local coaches.”
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden