Third in the world
A 2-1 triumph over Mexico's Club America saw Ahli capture a historic third-place finish at the World Club Championship in Japan. Inas Mazhar
The 28-year-old Mohamed Abou Treika was the hero of the reigning African champions and it was his double that gave his team the impressive third-place finish.
Ahli had gone one better than last year's edition when they finished last.
Ahli cashed in on lucrative prize money worth $ 2.5 million to be added to the $1 million they won when they were crowned African Champions last month. And qualifying for Japan netted for Ahli $1 million more.
Because the final was to be played soon afterwards, Ahli's players received their third place medals in the dressing room instead of on a podium. And both teams were also asked to purchase tickets if they intended to watch the final match.
In the final, Brazilian football notched up another major achievement when Internacional of Porto Alegre overcame strong favourites, European champions Barcelona, to win the tournament.
Internacional, the only club to beat Ahli in the event, became the third Brazilian side to taste success in the competition after Corinthians in 2000 and Sao Paulo in 2005.
At game time Sunday morning local time, Egypt looked oddly deserted. It seemed like an official holiday. The streets were empty and schools, universities and offices registered a high percentage of absenteeism, more than in Ahli's two previous games. Even parliament sessions were delayed until the end of the match.
When the South African referee blew the final whistle to declare Ahli the winner, life came back to the streets as millions of Egyptian fans rushed out in jubilation. Many others went to work late.
Some businesses were winners just as Ahli. Coffee shops presented special breakfast menus for their clients, who had reserved their seats days before the match.
"It's a historic day, a day which we will all remember and one which will live in our minds because Ahli was so great and honoured us by this historic victory," a jubilant Mustafa Zaki said as he was leaving a coffee shop with his friends. "I couldn't go to university today. I would be lying to myself. I wouldn't have been able to concentrate. We decided to watch the match here and now we'll be heading to Ahli club to join the members in their celebrations," Zaki said.
Mechanic Hisham Mansour, owner of a workshop, started his working day late on Sunday after watching the match and joining the crowds in their celebrations. He said the day was not only historic for Egypt, but for the other participating teams.
"It's not only Ahli players or Egyptian fans who will remember this day, but also the players of the other teams and their fans. They will remember Ahli, the team which gave them a hard time in the tournament. Auckland City and Club America will remember a new giant emerging in Africa. Even the champions Internacional of Brazil, they will remember their hard earned victory over Ahli in the semi-finals. Ahli had embarrassed them. If Ahli had won, we could have been the champions, not them," Mansour said.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian fans were expected to receive Ahli at the airport after arriving from Japan, as will some of the country's top officials.
"They deserve a special reception. If almost 300,000 waited for the African champions at the airport on their arrival from Tunisia after they won the African title, I'm sure the figure will be double this time," said engineer Islam Mahmoud.
"They deserve it. They have put us on the international map and made us proud of our football."
President Hosni Mubarak phoned Mahmoud El-Khatib, the head of the Ahli delegation in Japan, to congratulate him for the club's victory. The president promised to meet the players on their return and present them with merits of order.
The portents for an exciting play-off action were promising with both sides remaining faithful to their forward-thinking philosophies by fielding a clutch of attacking midfielders and a deep-lying striker supporting two out-and-out front men.
Despite the attacking firepower on show, the opening exchanges proved disappointingly short on excitement. Keepers Guillermo Ochoa and reserve Amir Abdel-Hamid were virtual spectators as the two sides engaged in some gentle shadow boxing.
Starved of the ball, Abou Treika dropped back to link up with his midfield and the impact was almost immediate. Flavio served warning of what was about to come by warming Ochoa's hands with a couple of firm drives from distance before earning a dangerous free-kick in Abou Treika territory. The gifted midfielder did not disappoint, delightfully curling the ball home to give the Africans the lead.
The goal forced Tena to rethink his tactics at half-time and on came Cuauhtemoc Blanco to give the isolated Mosqueda some much-needed support. The switch seemed to galvanise the Mexicans. Cuevas, who had been more preoccupied with covering the threat posed by Islam El-Shater down the flank, suddenly began to exert his influence on proceedings and almost fashioned an equaliser 10 minutes in only for Abdel-Hamid to pull off a fine save to his right.
Without ever totally dominating, the CONCACAF champions looked the side more likely to score and the equaliser duly came when Blanco worked his magic on the right and crossed for Cabanas to level things up with a textbook header in off the post.
The goal seemed to rouse Ahli from their slumber and with America intent on a second, the game finally sparked into life. Warming to his task, the veteran Blanco began to link up with Claudio Lopez and the two big names almost combined to give their side the lead with 20 minutes left, El Piojo just failing to get on the end of the number 10's inviting ball across the face of the goal.
That was about as good as it got for the Mexicans, however, as that man Abou Treika showed yet again why he is on the shortlist for the African player of the year. After surging out of midfield and finding Flavio with a pinpoint pass, the mercurial playmaker latched on to the Angolan's return ball and calmly slotted the ball past Ochoa for his third goal of the tournament.
There was no way back for America. In desperation the Mexicans began pumping a succession of long balls into the African box but all to no avail. At the other end, Flavio almost added a third for Ahli but saw his delicious chip sail just over the bar. No matter. Manuel Jose's men held on comfortably in the dying seconds, and the broad smiles on his players' faces as they proudly sported their bronze medals told the story.
"We put on a real high-quality display," Ahli's Portuguese coach Manuel Jose told a press conference in Yokohama. "Our style this time was more European than it was last year. In retrospect, I don't see why we couldn't have made it to the final.
"Every time we play a club from outside Africa we pick up valuable experience.
"I wanted us to be able to take part in this competition again so that we could show everyone the real Ahli, and today we did just that," Jose told reporters.
"Our players have been playing for the last two years without a break, so I'm very proud of them. We were too tense in the game against Internacional, but today we were able to demonstrate our competitive strength. I'd like to dedicate this victory to Egypt and to Africa," Jose concluded.
Club America coach Luis Fernando Tena admitted his side played a poor first half. "In the second half we had more possession and started to create more scoring chances. The game against Barcelona was difficult for us (4- 0) but we were determined to finish third and I sincerely thought we would win today.
"After we scored the equaliser we really went for it. We took risks going forward and that left spaces in midfield and at the back which our opponents exploited. Their No 22 (Mohamed Abou Treika) really stood out for Ahli. He could play for any team in the world and not look out of place.
"I genuinely believed that we could get a good result today, and I can only apologise to our fans for failing to live up to their expectations," a disappointed Tena concluded.
The final followed a couple of hours later. And against the odds, while the European Champions Barcelona were considered the favourites to win the title, it was the Brazilian Internacional who were crowned champions.
Both sides began the game as if determined to put on a feast of attacking football. In an entertaining end-to-end start to the match every Barcelona attack was followed by an equally menacing Inter response. Yet, as the minutes passed it was the European champions who gradually began to dictate the pace.
Expecting just such a turn of events, Inter's wily coach Abel Braga had devised tactics for a match within a match. In possession, Inter played a precise passing game designed to provide the strike duo of Iarley and Alexandre Pato, who switched positions continually, and the deep-lying Fernandao with the bullets they needed to unsettle the Catalan defence. Whenever possession was conceded, though, Inter's forwards pressed hard up front, while the midfield attempted to cut off Barcelona's passing options. At the back, Braga's men adopted a zonal rather than man-to-man marking strategy. The results, at least in the early stages of the game, were not altogether unsuccessful.
But even the best-laid plans can come unstuck against the irrepressible Blaugrana machine. Whenever the scheming Deco and the persistent Ronaldinho clicked, Barca looked genuinely threatening. Although Pato managed to conjure up a couple of openings in the first quarter of an hour, it was the tournament favourites who were creating the clearest chances.
The changes made by both coaches at the break reflected the pattern of the game in the first 45 minutes. With the Spaniards continuing to control possession, Fernandao dropped back to lend a hand in midfield as Inter opted to string two lines of four across the pitch, leaving their front men increasingly isolated. Luiz Adriano's introduction in place of Pato seemed to give the Brazilians a new lease of life even if the game was more reminiscent of a chess match than the feast of attacking football it had promised to be.
Frank Rijkaard shuffled his pack by bring on Xavi, and the Spanish international soon made his presence felt by getting into threatening forward positions. Braga responded with another defensive change as Fernandao made way for midfield man Adriano. Inter's hopes of victory now seemed to rest on an isolated break and their cautious tactics paid off with eight minutes left as Iarley deceived Puyol in the middle of the field before playing in Adriano, who poked the ball past the onrushing Valdes.
Barcelona had no option but to throw everything forward. Clemer denied Gudjohnsen what looked like a certain equaliser and then, three minutes from time, Ronaldinho shaved his compatriot's right-hand post with an arcing free-kick. As the minutes ticked agonisingly by, the Brazilians skillfully kept hold of possession in the dying stages. When it eventually came, the final whistle was met with jubilant celebrations by the men in white, who against all the odds had crowned themselves champions of the world.