Monday, April 23, 2007

Al Ahly Turns 100

Let's stop for a moment and celebrate the longevity and drive of Africa's most successful franchise, Egypt's Al Ahly. With 99 championships in their trophy cabinet, they deserve their distinction as one of the most revered clubs in world football.

Al Ahly turns 100 this week and celebrates by hosting European champions Barcelona in a friendly.

"The club will play a game against FC Barcelona on Tuesday, which will be the highlight of a series of celebrations spanning an entire year," Sherif Seif al-Nasr, the club official in charge of centennial celebrations, said.

Ahly's main goal this season is to win a 32nd Egyptian league triumph, a likely prospect as striker Mohammed Aboutrika and his men have already opened up a 12-point gap at the top of the table.

That would provide the icing on the cake all the fans are hoping for, bringing the club its 100th piece of silverware in its centenary season.

After winning its second consecutive African Champions League trophy last year and clinching an unprecedented third spot in the intercontinental cup, Ahly has been in unstoppable form of late.

Ahly boasts around 100,000 members and a fan base estimated at 50 million, making it the most popular club in Egypt, despite its bitter rivalry with Zamalek and the largest club on the continent.

The "African club of the century" was founded on April 24, 1907 by Omar Lutfi Bey, a senior official who wanted a purely national club to counter British dominance of the country, which extended to sports.

"Ahly's victories, especially the early ones against the British, strengthened a feeling of national pride," said Sadek, whose three-piece history on Ahly is to be released in August.

Ahly sporting club has since produced the country's finest athletes, many of whom became the first Egyptians and often the first Africans to win international competitions.

The football club has had its share of heroes throughout the years, but all eyes Tuesday will be on striker Aboutrika (pictured, right), whose classy playmaking and ruthless goal scoring skills have earned him the nickname of "smiling assassin".

Red flags have started adorning balconies and cars in Cairo and the rest of the country ahead of the Barcelona game.

The national club kept its colors even when the country's flag switched to green in 1924 after independence.

The club experienced a dry patch in the late 1960s to early 1970s but otherwise has dominated national football for much of its existence, together with bitter Cairo foes Zamalek.

"The club has only two weaknesses: a limited budget which currently doesn't exceed $26 million and limited fame in the West," Sadek said.

That might change after the friendly Tuesday.

Let's stand up and cheer for a true beacon of not just African football
but world football. Congratulations on your centenary.

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