By Leo Linden
In 2000, Al Ahly SC was named African club of the century, and with good reason. Their first almost 100 years of existence were dominant both in Egypt and on the continent, and since then, they have not let up. They’ve used another stretch of dominance to repeatedly reach the highest of highs, but in the present, Al Ahly again faces an uphill battle if it wants to return to the pinnacle of African football.
The Cairo-based club was founded by students in 1907 and never really lagged behind the competition. In the 22-year history of the Sultan Hussain Cup, the Red Devils won the competition seven times, including a three-peat between 1925 and 1927. Those years also saw great success in the Egyptian Cup, as Al Ahly took home six of the first eight titles after the competition’s conception in the 1923-24 season.
Seven more Egyptian cup titles followed before the formation of the national league for the 1948-49 season. As they had done in the cup, the Red Devils came out of the gates flying in the league, winning the first five seasons, completing the double in four of those. After the league competition was not held in 1954-55, it was straight back to the winner's circle as Al Ahly took home the next four straight titles. It took until 1960, a whopping 12 years after the league was founded, for a season to be completed with the Red Devils not on top. They finished third, before winning another pair of trophies and dropping back down to third again in 1963. Al Ahly dropped down the table a bit after that, but worse, the national league was not held or not completed five times in a six-season span between 1968 and 1974.
When the competition returned in fall of 1974, Al Ahly naturally won seven of the next eight titles, but bigger goals were set in the CAF Champions League, which the Egyptian side began competing in during the 1976 season. However, conquering Africa proved a harder task than Egypt, and it wasn’t instantly to lifting the trophy for the Red Devils.
That being said, it still didn’t take much time for Al Ahly to reign supreme on the continent. They won their first CAF Champions League (then known as the African Cup of Champions) title in 1982, defeating Asante Kotoko of Ghana in the two-legged final.
Four more league titles and another Champions League trophy rounded out the 80s, and it was very quickly established that Al Ahly were a force to be reckoned with across all of Africa.
Though they did not enter the Champions League for most of the 90s, and crashed out early the three times they did, that decade was one of the most
That set up an interesting campaign in 2001, when the club lost its first league title in eight attempts but was able to triumph as kings of Africa again, smashing Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa 4-1 on aggregate in the Champions League final.
Three more runner-up finishes in the league followed and Al Ahly seemed to be fading a bit, but they came roaring back in the 2004-05 campaign under coach Manuel Jose, who was beginning his second and most successful stint with the club. Not only did that year kick off an eight-year league winning streak (second longest in club history), it also began a run of four straight trips to the Champions League final, with three victories. It was certainly not the time to run into the juggernaut in any competition, as they firmly took the lead in titles won on the continent.
Jose left in 2009 and though he rejoined the club in 2010, everything changed when the Arab Spring struck Egypt hard in 2012, but Al Ahly, who were no longer under Jose’s watch, did not miss a beat. The Egyptian Premier League was not able to finish its competitions in 2012 and 2013, but that mattered little to Al Ahly, who won the Champions League final in both.
To little surprise, with the return of the league, the return of the title to Al Ahly followed, as they have taken home two of the three trophies since the
When the league returns in the fall, Al Ahly will of course be favorites, but there is still work to be done on the continent for the team with a larger target on its back than just about anyone in the world.
Currently, Al Ahly sit in last place of their four-team Champions League group with two games to play. Surprisingly, they still have plenty of opportunity, as the group has a ton of parity with the co-leaders Wydad Casablanca of Morocco and ZESCO United of Zambia sitting on seven points and ASEC Mimosas of the Ivory Coast level with the Red Devils on four. Though they are down, Al Ahly are certainly not out in what could turn out to be a gritty finish. More importantly, Al Ahly seem to be peaking at the right time, as they have come through with a draw and a victory after losing their first two games.
Should they pull a rabbit out of the hat, the Egyptians will be back in familiar territory in the last four of Africa, where they might meet a familiar face in Mamelodi Sundowns, who have already punched their ticket as Group A winners. Based on their history, it wouldn’t be a shock at all if Ah Ahly came all the way back to win the title.