Longest season on earth
The curtain has at last been drawn on the longest-ever national football league. Mohamed El-Sayed reviews the season gone
This year's national football league may go down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest football league season ever played. Coming to an end only two weeks ago, the season began on Friday 29 August 2003, and lasted for 321 days. Almost all of FIFA's 205 member countries ended their season in May or early June. Of all the football leagues around the world, only the Egyptian one lasted 11 months -- the result of being continually interrupted due to international engagements.
It was halted for 70 days due to the national team's participation in the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia in January. It was also stopped several times due to the youth team's participation in the World Cup in the Emirates, the Olympic qualifiers as well as the national team's fixtures in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers.
LONGEST AND WORST
Besides being the longest in the history of the 56-year-old competition, the season was arguably one of the worst. It was apparent from the beginning that Zamalek were the favourites because of Ahli and Ismaili's dismal start. Zamalek won 11 of the 13 matches of the first round, sealing the competition from the very outset.
The White House put an end to the Red Devils' hopes when they edged them 2-1 in week 22, securing the shield for the 11th time in their 94-year-old history with a 13-point lead. That is why the white jerseys' last match against the Coastal Guards that ended 1-1 was half-hearted. But their fans appeared in large numbers in the Military Academy Stadium indulging in the hope of watching their team lifting the shield. Against the established tradition followed around the world -- which dictates that the shield should be delivered to the winning team following the final whistle of the last match -- the handing over of the shield did not take place following their last match -- obviously a unique Egyptian tradition added to the league's unique length.
However, Zamalek's Abdel-Halim Ali, the competition's top goal-scorer, took the match as an opportunity to increase his tally. So when the referee handled the white jerseys a penalty 15 minutes before time, Ali, or "the Nightingale" as the white supporters like to call him, advanced to net his 21st goal. Ali surpassed last season's goal-scorer Hossam Hassan -- who netted 20 goals -- becoming the second best scorer in one league of all times after the Hammers' legend Hassan El-Shazli who scored 34 goals in the 1974-1975 season.
Ali clinched himself the sixth spot in the world goal-scorers list this season, surpassing some of the world's best strikers like Thiery Henry of Arsenal and Ronaldo of Real Madrid. Ali's scoring average was 0.81 goals per match. Gabriel Batistuta of the Qatari team Al-Arabi topped the list with 1.38 goals per match, scoring 25 goals in 18 matches.
This year's poor performance aside, it is worth mentioning that Zamalek made several international records this season. Like the Gunners squad of England, the Arsenal, Zamalek ended the season without a single defeat. But unlike the champions of the English Premiership, who are considered one of the world's football powerhouses, Zamalek scored in all their matches even in the four encounters in which they were held to draw. The White House also excelled all league champions around the world, gathering 68 points from the maximum 78 points a team can gain in the Egyptian League (an 87.2 per cent winning average). The Egyptian side is followed by Celtic of Scotland who garnered 98 points from the maximum 114 points in the Scottish league (an 86 per cent winning average).
In a press conference on Saturday, the team's Portuguese head coach paid farewell to the White House. Having started his tenure last August, Vingada helped Zamalek to three championships: The Arab Championship in its old edition, the Egyptian-Saudi Super Cup, and finally the Egyptian Premiership League. In addition, he finished third in the new edition of the Arab Champions League. "Despite having coached in several countries for a long time, I have never seen a season as long as this one," Vingada said.
Before leaving, Vingada submitted a report to the White House administration pointing out the players who should continue with the team and those who should be ruled out.
For Zamalek's arch foes Ahli, this was perhaps the worst season in their history. The Red Devils had a poor start this season, losing 14 points in the first round under the leadership of head coach Tony Oliviera. The Portuguese coach was sacked before the end of the first round after losing four matches. Oliviera was then substituted by his countryman Manuel Jose, who had coached the team in 2001-2002 season. Jose reorganised the squad during the 70-day halt that began in December.
The Red Devils collected 34 points in the second round, excelling title holders Zamalek who gathered 33. Ahli regained their dignity in the second round, beating those who defeated them in the first round -- Ismaili, Ittihad of Alexandria and Enppi.
Beating the Upper Egyptian Aswan 2-1 in the final week, Ahli ended the season with 59 points.
It is hoped that the coming season will bring more prosper. Jose intends to make drastic changes in the team's line-up in the next season. He once wondered out loud to the press, "how can I paint a colored painting with pencils", referring to the fact that several players do not deserve the honour of wearing the red jersey.
Since then effort has been made to sign on more colourful players -- the Red Devils signed distinguished Egyptian players like Mohamed Barakat, the Egyptian player of the year 2002 who returned from a two-year tour of professional football in Saudi Arabia and Qatar; Emad El-Nahhas, one of the best Egyptian third backs who returned from a six- month loan in the Saudi team of Nasr; and finally Islam El-Shater who had signed for Zamalek during the transfer window last January, but changed his mind after being lent to the Saudi club Ittihad Jeddah, capitalising on a gaping hole in his contract with the White House. The three of them are former Ismaili players who helped their club to its third national league title in 2002.
Ismaili, the third challengers for the title, got out of the competition by the end of the first round. Making a whole sale of their veteran players in the middle of the tournament, the Dervishes lost balance due to the severe lack of experience of their youth players. However, they established themselves in the Arab Champions League, finishing in the second place.
Beating Baladiyet Al-Mehalla 2-1 in the last match, the yellow jerseys gathered 51 points, thus securing the third place that qualifies them to play in the Arab Champions League in its second edition.
"I am content with the results we made this season," said Ismaili's coach Theo Bucker in a press conference following the last match. "We finished second in the African Champions League and the Arab Champions League, and third in the local league. If it were not for the repeated halts and the whole sale of veteran players in the middle of the season, we could have done better."
The German coach renewed his contract with the coastal city club for one more season, making a $13,000 monthly salary. Admitting that "I cannot win a championship with inexperienced youth players," Bucker intends to add new faces to the team in the defence and attack line-up.
Apart from the traditional challengers for the title, other teams were content with staying in the premiership league to enjoy the limelight. Mehalla finished fourth with 43 points, Ittihad 42, Enppi 40, the Coastal Guards 34, Misri 32, Mansoura 31, Baladiyet Mehalla 30, Tersana 26, Aswan 22, Qanah 12, and Koroum 12.
The last three squads paid farewell to the Premiership, being relegated to the second division. The three of them were promoted for the Premiership this season, but they came and went without leaving a mark. Cement Assiut, Cement Aswan and the Army team will replace them in the coming season.
SEASON OF STRIFE
This season witnessed unprecedented incidents, such as the Ahli-Misri match controversy. The football association decided that their match should be played in Port Said without spectators, since Misri fans committed riot actions in the previous match with Baladiyet Al-Mehalla. Considering the encounter against Ahli a championship unto itself, Misri officials refused to yield to the decision, resorting to the Administrative Court. The court ruled that the match should be played with spectators in Port Said. But the association decided to hold the match in Alexandria as a punishment for the coastal city club. Misri officials escalated the case to the People's Assembly who came up with a compromise. Finally, the match was played in Port Said in the attendance of the Misri fans and was one of the most dull in the season, proving to be not worthy of all that noise that surrounded it.
This season also saw the application of the transfer window system in the middle of the tournament. In January, every club has the right to add four players to its list.
Of all the 14 clubs of the league, only five kept their coaches to the end of the season, namely: Zamalek, Ismaili, Enppi, the Coastal Guards and Koroum. Misri coach, Farouk Gaafar, was also the talk of the town this season. The "flying coach", as most critics used to call him, trained three clubs this season: Baladiyet El-Mehalla, Tersana and then Misri. Gaafar used to sign for those who pay much, even if before the end of his contract with the club he was training. He took LE500,000 upon signing the contract with Misri officials, making a monthly salary of LE35,000, one of the biggest in the tournament. He stipulated that he should stay in a private suite in a five-star hotel in addition to three days off every week as "rest".
Following the early exit of the national team from the African Cup of Nations in January, the Egyptian Football Association resigned -- or to be precise was forced to submit its resignation to the minister of youth -- after a string of failures on the international level. New faces led by Al-Ahram sports critic Essam Abdel-Moneim were appointed by the former Minister of Youth Alieddin Hilal.
Despite the fact that a considerable chunk of the Egyptian football fans began ignoring the national league and turning instead to world-class football and the European sphere of play, they still hold onto a glimmer of hope that a breakthrough may yet take place both in the level of competition, and performance, in the coming season. Still, if the mismanagement of the game that led to the catastrophic results on the club and national teams' levels continues as has been the norm this season, that last thread of hope, and that last thread of faith, will undoubtedly be fast put to rest.