The final Al-Ahly wanted

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Al-AhlyGettyImagesAl-Ahly have risen above the turmoil to find success on the pitch.

When Al-Ahly completed both their CAF Champs League group stage matches against Orlando Pirates, they were so impressed with the style of play and level of competitiveness the South African club displayed, they were hopeful they could meet again in the final of the competition. That prediction has come true but not before rigorous semifinal challenges for both sides.

Pirates did not win either one of their two-legged final four matches against Tunisia's Esperance, who were expecting an all North African final, but qualified on away goals. After failing to capitalise on home advantage in Soweto, Pirates seemed the more determined team in Rades.

They opened the scoring and could have added to Rooi Mahamutsa's header but squandered chances throughout the second half. Despite two draws, Pirates had done enough to give themselves an opportunity to add to their one continental title, earned in 1995.

After confirming their places in the final, Pirates revealed they are most comfortable playing against North African opposition because "the pitches and stadiums are good," according to coach Roger de Sa. Pirates were grouped with both Egyptian heavyweights, Al-Ahly and Zamalek, after beating TP Mazembe -- despite what they claimed was dodgy officiating -- to qualify for the main draw and beat both of them by big margins.

The team they struggled against was DRC Congo's AC Leopards, who held them at home and beat them when they visited Congo. De Sa said that match was "always going to be the most challenging," because "we don't like those conditions." But playing the final in Cairo suits Pirates just fine. "If the officials are half-decent, we will always have a chance," de Sa said, alluding to the red card given to captain Lucky Lekgwati and the penalties awarded to Mazembe in Lubumbashi. All things being equal, Pirates expect themselves to be Africa's representatives at the Club World Cup.

The rest of the continent probably fancy Al-Ahly's chances. Despite the suspension of the coach and what was reported as depression in the camp, they summoned the strength to beat Cameroon's Coton Sport in a penalty shootout after also failing to win in regulation time over both legs.

Two scores of 1-1, with the same number of away goals for each team, left the two sides inseparable after two legs and even the usual five spotkicks could not split them. When Aboutrika missed Al-Ahly's first penalty, it seemed as though the gloom that has affected all of Egyptian football recently had extended to one of their finest players as well.

His teammates saved his blushes and the pressure got to Jacques Haman, who missed his kick to see Al-Ahly through. The joy may have been overshadowed by relief but no-one really knows because the match was played behind closed doors, as has been the case for all fixtures staged in Egypt after the Port Said tragedy.

Al-Ahly are asking seeking permission to have a limited number of fans in the stadium for the Champions League final second-leg, which will be played in their territory. Their reason is simple: they want to be able to celebrate with the people they serve this time, provided they have something to cheer.

The club, like the Egyptian national team, are record-holders on the continent. They have won the CAF Champions League seven times. Their country's national side are hurting after being all but ruled out of the 2014 World Cup after a 6-1 defeat to Ghana and their talisman Mohamed Aboutrika has confirmed he will retire once the continental club championship is over.

Winning another title will probably not make up for the disappointment Aboutrika or the country's millions of football fans feel after seemingly failing to qualify for a global event they seemed destined for (barring a major miracle). It will also do very little to ease the concerns the continuing political crisis is having on Egyptian football. But it may do something to ease the hurt.

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