As the majority of the footballing world focused on Great Britain, and the outworking of the Olympic men’s Quarter Finals, a voluminous corner of Katanga played host to the African Champions League Group B crunch match between Tout Puissant Mazembe and El-Zamalek of Cairo. 90 minutes in, the Stade Municipal de Lubumbashi proved that the Olympics isn’t the only place to go for sporting drama, but also, regrettably for Egyptians, that Egyptian football has several serious issues to contend with.
Zamalek, in particular, are going through a terrible time.
Imagine that period in your life, we all have had them; those dark days, you lose your job, you lose your woman, you lose your keys, and then you get spanked by Les Corbeaux in the Congo. Some weeks ago, Zamalek were merely the slightly faded institution of Egyptian football, falling beneath the shadow of their Cairene neighbours and rivals Al-Ahly, with their famous archer still standing proud, aiming high, head raised to the future. Things have taken a turn for the worse though, and Mazembe’s 2-0 win on Saturday can at best be the nadir of a dreadful few weeks in the club’s history.
Even a month ago, the name Zamalek spurned several encouraging images, certain tenets and figures which would hopefully see one through those long nights and lonely mornings. Tumultuous times have taken their toll however, and Zamalek today appear to be a jaded and spent force that perhaps, dare I say it, no longer belong at Africa’s top table.
Mido departed the scene in May, swapping the comforts of the White Knights, the club where he began his career, for life in the English Championship with Yorkshire Tykes Barnsley. Disputes between the player and club brass, chairman Mamdouh Abbas and coach Hassan Shehata were often put down to Mido’s enfant terrible reputation. The much-decorated Shehata followed recently, a dispute with creative midfielder Shikabala ending with the departure of both men; the boss resigning and the controversial player leaving for Al Wasl of the UAE.
Amr Zaki has also had his problems, both on and off the pitch, but the fact remains that he is a man who knows how to score a goal, and knows how to help his team out of a tight spot. By the sound of it, he won’t be doing either of those things with Zamalek anymore either. The rumours suggested that, despite still being contracted to the club, Zaki was not in the right frame of mind to compete against Mazembe – an imminent departure looks likely, with an offer of €250,000 from Gaziantepspor reportedly on the table. Contrary to reports before the match, it was Burkinabé Abdoulaye Cisse who took Zaki’s place up front, rather than unsettled Benin striker Razak Omotoyossi.
It’s hard to say what, if any, difference these individuals would have made against Mazembe. The fact that Zamalek were praised in some quarters for a ‘good’ first half (despite being dominated by the home side) perhaps tells its own story – indicating how far expectations have fallen, and acknowledging the dire straights the club finds itself in.
As the match wore on, predictions among the media envisaging a draw, proved to be wide of the mark. Zamalek were neither coherent nor convincing, neither composed nor collective, and the only surprise was that it took the home side 70 minutes to break the deadlock.
Before the match, questions had been raised of Mazembe also, DR Congo’s continental champions of both 2009 & 2010. One point from their first two Group B games was no disaster, but a win at home against apparently the league’s weakest team was imperative. The Mazembe supporters in attendance were acutely aware of the need for victory, but this urgency was tempered by the assured conviction that exists amongst their number: when Les Corbeaux play at home in the African Champions League – they don’t lose.
Mazembe have been the pride of sub-Saharan African football for a while now, and days like today prove exactly why this is: the football was often electric, and the supporters were impassioned and joyous, as Zamalek were quite simply outclassed. Katanga governor and Mazembe patron Moise Katumbi watched on from the stands, basking in the ferocious fervour he helped create. A gentle smile passed upon his lips as Mazembe’s dominance grew.
It’s no coincidence that a rich vein of Zambian talent flows through the team. Several of the players who stood out for Chipolopolo in the 2012 Afcon were on show here, and as predicted by many, were among those to make an impact. Sunzu, although rarely troubled, was as solid as ever when called upon, Kalaba was his usual inventive self, and Singuluma gave the Mazembe backline a headache with some insightful runs.
It was a Congolese player, Ngandu Kasongo, who finally opened the scoring with a close finish after Zamalek failed to contend with a routine corner. The bout was settled only seven minutes later, as young Tanzanian forward Mbwana Samata, who signed last year from Simba, capitalised on some mindless Zamalek defending to head home Mazembe’s second. Left back Sabry Raheel was the most at fault, but the whole experience was an inglorious one for the White Knights’ backline. The only exception perhaps being veteran captain Abdel Wahed El-Sayed who kept the Ravens at bay for long portions of the game.
On the final whistle, players and fans reflected the differing impact of the result. The cauldron of the Stade Municipal overflowed with ecstatic celebration and celebratory ecstasy, Corbeaux fans realise that their Champions League campaign is back on, and heading into the fourth round of fixtures, the Lubumbashi side are ready to assail to the top of Group B. In Samata, and Congolese star Tresor Mputu, Mazembe have a strikeforce to be proud of, and it is one more than capable of troubling defences right to the latter stages of this competition. They will certainly fear nothing when they travel to Cairo for the return against Mazembe on the 19th of August. Impossible n’est pas Mazembe!
For Zamalek however, despair and disorder were best expressed by El-Sayed, who slumped to the turf on ninety minutes, a lonely figure amidst the triumphant hoards around him. With their continental campaign all but over, the five-time Champions League winners need to take a long, hard look at themselves and begin to discover the best way of regaining some of their spoilt lustre. News today that Tarek Yehia of Maqassa is set to replace interim manager Ismail Youssef may comfort some supporters, but the Zamalek of today feel a long way from the glories of their final victories in years gone by.
Whilst Ahly’s convincing victory over Berekum Chelsea of Ghana later in the day will have restored some Egyptian pride, it may be a while yet until El-Zamalek are in a position to give the nation something else to smile about.
You can follow Ed on Twitter @Eddydove