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Mohamed Aboutrika example as pertinent as ever before for Al-Ahly

In the aftermath of Al-Ahly's controversial CAF Champions League final first-leg victory over Esperance on Friday, the Confederation of African Football published a tweet that could have been seen as a cautionary word to the two competitors.

"Revive the fairplay spirit," the tweet began. "Compete with respect, win with honour."

At first read, the post came across as something of a rebuke to the two continental giants following an ill-tempered final in which refereeing decisions and poor sportsmanship overshadowed the result - a 3-1 victory for Ahly.

Veteran Walid Soliman scored twice from the spot; both penalties being won by Walid Azaro in dubious circumstances, with the Morocco international on one occasion ripping his own shirt in an attempt to dupe the officials.

Indeed, shortly after CAF's tweet seeming to urge improved behaviour from Ahly and Esperance, Azaro was suspended for two matches following his antics.

CAF also opted to fine the club $20,000 and have "invited" coach Patrice Carteron to attend a disciplinary hearing in response to "allegations of unsporting behaviour."

Ahly have complained about the decision - a protest which is being supported by the Egyptian Football Association - but nothing will change the result of the first leg, to Esperance's chagrin!

Despite the ominous prospect of a match against the Tunisian giants in Rades, Ahly are overwhelming favourites to end their five-year wait for a continental crown and win the title they last claimed back in 2013.

That championship - won against the backdrop of the Arab Spring's denouement - was the last hurrah of Ahly's greatest team, and arguably Egypt's finest player, Mohamed Aboutrika.

Just over a fortnight before Ahly's first-leg draw with Orlando Pirates in the 2013 final - a game in which Aboutrika scored - the forward had been part of the Pharaohs team that were thrashed 6-1 by Ghana in the first leg of their World Cup 2014 playoff.

Already, the attacking midfielder must have known that the showdown with Bucs would be his final high-profile clash - there would be no World Cup swansong in Brazil - and he duly went out in style, netting the opener in the return leg in Cairo as the Pharaohs ran out 3-1 aggregate winners.

It was the last time Ahly stood atop Africa, and the last time they'd had a team worthy of the title of being 'Africa's Club of the Century'.

There have been times, over the last few months, that Carteron's outfit have begun to demonstrate some of the qualities of Aboutrika's generation - the big-game temperament, the attacking dimension, the discipline.

Certainly, the French coach deserves immense credit for picking up the pieces of a troubled CAF Champions League campaign - he took over when Ahly had just one point from their first two group games - and helped the giants rediscover their superiority.

Yet their final first-leg theatrics - and the unsporting behaviour of Azaro - has altered the narrative and tarnished what could have been an exceptional climb back to the pinnacle of the African game.

It's almost as though CAF's tweet - "Compete with respect, win with honour" - was acting as a reminder, for Ahly, of how the team had conquered the continent in the past.

Aboutrika's birthday on Wednesday, as the midfielder turns 40, serves another such reminder of an Ahly that existed before Egypt's identity changed so dramatically and of a player whose entire comport was the antithesis of Azaro's spectacle in Alexandria.

His birthday may have brought back some teary-eyed recollections of the player's on-field contributions to Ahly and Egypt's golden generation - he won seven Egyptian titles, five CAF CL crowns, and two Africa Cup of Nations titles.

However, he was also a player whose poise and composure on the pitch pales into comparison with his humanity and character off it.

Technically, he was superb; an accomplished free-kick taker, an elegant dribbler, and a footballing thinker, who was a lethal presence arriving late in the box or finding space between the lines.

However, the University of Cairo graduate - he holds a degree in philosophy - is also revered for his loyalty, for remaining with Ahly on a point of principle despite interest elsewhere, and for his boldness in speaking out and standing up for the causes he believed in.

Aboutrika, notably, revealed a 'Sympathise with Gaza' shirt after scoring during the 2008 AFCON as he demonstrated his solidarity with the people of Palestine - incurring the displeasure of the football authorities in the process - and has spoken eloquently on subjects such as blood donation and poverty.

Poignantly, one of Aboutrika's final acts as an Ahly player in the Egyptian top flight, was to cradle a dying fan during the Port Said stadium massacre in February 2012, as a nation crumbled around him.

On the field, the rise of Mohamed Salah has helped Egypt pick themselves up from the doldrums they plunged into after Aboutrika's exit from the international arena.

Closer to home, Ahly, certainly, are a club on the rise, and a record-extending continental crown would be a worthy honour for Carteron's superb impact over the last six months.

However, the nature of Friday's triumph - coupled with these timely celebrations for one of their golden sons-only serves as a reminder of the club they once were and, for now, the club they must aim to be once again.

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