Won the hard way
In 180 minutes of fractious play, Zamalek's only goal was enough to capture Africa's most coveted club football award. Abeer Anwar reports on a tournament that was anything but easy
Zamalek of Egypt won the African Champions League crown for a record fifth time on Friday after beating Raja Casablanca 1-0 at Cairo Stadium.
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Clockwise from top: Zamalek team and management celebrate after the match; Hazem Imam weaves his way around the Raja defence; the twins, Hossam and Ibrahim, share the cup; Imam, the team's captain, lifts the trophy
The goal was enough to take the championship after the first leg of the final in Morocco two weeks earlier ended goalless.
The Egyptians started as favourites but they needed a lucky deflection to secure the win -- and got it -- on of all days, Friday 13. Tamer Abdel- Hamid's strike deep into stoppage time in the first half could only be parried by Raja's keeper Mustapha Chadili, who was way off his goal line.
The drive from the edge of the box ballooned up off the keeper's hands and into the top left corner of the goal.
Zamalek began the match in halting fashion, apparently unable to get to grips with the occasion. That left the door open for the likes of Noureddine Kacem, Hamid Mater and Samy Taggedine to probe the Zamalek defence at will. But Zamalek soon steadied themselves as midfield wizard Hazem Imam pulled off one of his patented dribbles on goal, followed by a low drive that Chadili did well to convert to a corner.
Zamalek had more than one opportunity to add an insurance goal in the second half as Raja pressed forward for the equaliser, leaving huge spaces at the back. But the striking pair of Hossam Hassan and Walid Salah Abdel-Latif failed to take advantage.
The victory gave Zamalek $1 million in prize money and allowed the cup to remain in Egyptian hands; Ahli are the defending champions but exited the tournament early this year. Zamalek have now won the cup a record five times, two more than Raja. The Egyptian squad will enter the World Cup for clubs and is now posed to play in the African Super Cup and will keep it permanently if they win since it will be their third tournament success.
The game was marred by regular stoppages as players got involved in countless off-the-ball incidents and went down writhing in agony at the gentlest of challenges.
The Libyan referee handed out seven yellow cards and could have booked many more players, but did his best to keep the game flowing.
In the last few minutes, the match descended into near-farce as Raja's assistant coach was red-carded for charging onto the pitch and the referee had to contend with players wrestling with each other.
They said it
Zamalek's Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Cabral admitted his side were lucky after they secured the win, adding that the result could have gone either way. "It was one of those great tussles where you had to be on guard all the time. Thank God luck was with my side."
Zamalek captain Imam agreed that the intensity of the match was huge, but said his teammates had been a little cleverer than their opponents.
"We sat down before the game and discussed not letting ourselves get frustrated or intimidated, especially in the early part of the match," Imam said. "We are really happy to win, especially for our fans."
"I could not believe I scored for my team," said Abdel- Hamid, voted the match's best player. "This is my third goal for Zamalek in three years. Assistant coach Tarek Yehia told me before the match that I will score and I did. Thanks God."
Abdel-Wahed El-Sayed, Zamalek's goalkeeper, celebrated a clean scoresheet and his first title with Zamalek.
"It was very moving to see all those thousands of fans waiting at the gates of the stadium to enter," stalwart defender Medhat Abdel-Hadi said. "I kept crying and felt we had to do something to thank all those fans who filled the stands three hours before game time."
"It was a very long journey during which the players did their best," Kamal Darwish, Zamalek's club president, said. "I thank all the fans who cheered for us throughout our journey."
Raja coach Walter Meeuws said he felt his side had lost to the better team. "I'm disappointed but in football you have to be realistic sometimes," he sighed. "Zamalek played a very good game, especially in the first half," added the former Belgium coach.
"The goal was disappointing, especially to concede it at the end of the half. We did our best but needed luck, which wasn't the case. The conclusion is that Zamalek deserved to win the game."
The win also marked an historic feat for Zamalek's veteran twins Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan, who achieved the distinction of winning an African Champions League medal for the second time -- 15 years after they won their first.
The 36-year-old twins featured prominently in Friday's win although both were also heavily involved in the fighting that marred the match.
The title was added to the 1987 victory when the pair were at Zamalek's arch-rivals Ahli, who beat Sudan's Al-Hilal 2-0 on aggregate.
"It is a great honour for me and nice to add another championship," Hossam said after Zamalek's win. "I am happy to have done this and hope to continue playing for a while yet."
The pair were given a new lease of life at Zamalek after a controversial move from Ahli two years ago. Few players have crossed the passionate divide between Cairo's two major clubs but the brothers seem to have thrived on the controversy caused by their switch.
In addition to their first Champions League title, the twin's career at Ahli also saw them collect 11 league titles and play at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy.
Since moving to Zamalek, they have also won a league championship and now the biggest prize in African club soccer again.
Hossam Hassan won wider recognition as the world's most capped player, winning a 151st cap two years ago before the record was overtaken by Mexico's Claudio Suarez.
Ibrahim also entered the plus-100 caps club despite spending a year out with suspension after attempting to attack the referee in the 1994 African Super Cup against Zamalek.
He was also to the fore in the fracas that spoilt Friday's final, collecting a yellow card in the first half and then trading punches with Raja Casablanca players in a mass brawl after the 1-0 aggregate win. He was also caught on camera making an obscene gesture that is sure to land him in hot water yet again.