Ah Ahly of Egypt must rediscover aura in African Champions League
No club has held a stranglehold over a continental competition like Al Ahly of Egypt but for the last two editions of the African Champions League they have failed to get through the preliminary phase.
A record haul of eight African titles, six of them in the last decade, attest to the status of the Cairo club.
As title holders in 2014 they suffered the ignominy of defeat by namesakes and neighbours Al Ahly Benghazi, although there was the consolation of dropping down to the African Confederation Cup and going on to win it.
Last year, they lost on penalties after drawing their tie in the last of the knockout round, with Moghreb Tetouan of Morocco denying them a place in the league phase.
It has not been the easiest of times for Egyptian clubs with their league halted twice by deadly stadium disasters and the game still played under heavy security restrictions because of the fear that the terraces will again spark a repeat of the Tahir Square revolution that toppled long-standing president Hosni Mubarak.
Al Ahly Ultras, their fanatical fan group, were at the centre of much of the protest but since Mubarak's former military colleagues re-established their grip on power, they have been carefully restricted and regulated.
With a change in the social climate has also come a shift in the aura around Al Ahly, no longer as feared as they used to be by other clubs on the continent. There has also been the unravelling of a golden generation with the retirement of the likes of Mohamed Barakat, Mohamed Aboutrika and defender Wael Gomaa, record-breaking winner of African titles with both club and country.
In January, coach Jose Peseiro left after just three months to take over at FC Porto in his home country in another blow as Al Ahly seek to regain continuity that allowed them such dominance previously.
But the appointment of Martin Jol attests to their ambition and the first real test for the new coach -- the first Dutchman at the club since Jo Bonfrere in 2002 -- comes this weekend in Angola in the second round of the Champions League.
Al Ahly had a bye in the first round and so effectively make their bow in this year's continental club competition when they are hosted by Recreativo Libolo on Saturday. The Angolan club are among the most ambitious on the continent and the patronage of businessman Rui Campos has seen them emerge from virtually nowhere to dominate Angola's GiraBola.
They were promoted only in 2009 and two years later won the first of four championships. In 2013, Recreativo Libolo made it through to the last eight of the Champions League, the group stages, and have high hopes of returning to the elite of the continental game again this year.
It is a tough task for Al Ahly, forced to play away in the heat of Calulo, a small provincial town some 500km inland from the capital Luanda.
But success in the Champions League often rests on the foundation of gritty triumph in faraway venues, where the crowds are compact and aggressive; the pitches usually bumpy and dangerous; the heat intense and the facilities threadbare.
This weekend's second round first leg ties are also being hosted in places like Aba, Douala and Warri -- as inhospitable as any in world football.
Admittedly there are also Champions League clashes on Saturday and Sunday at Soccer City, site of the 2010 World Cup final; Casablanca, the November 7 Stadium south of Tunis and the impressive new stadium in Ndola, Zambia -- all of which attest to African football's potential and growing infrastructure.
There are a total of 12 former champions in the field for the weekend's games, including the start of the defence of the title by TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The club from Lubumbashi begin away in Ethiopia where they are hosted by St George, one of the continent's oldest clubs, at the National Stadium in Addis Ababa. Mazembe were African Super Cup winners just fortnight ago.
Beside Al Ahly, their main opposition for the title this year is expected to come from compatriots AS Vita Club and the strong north African contingent of Etoile Sahel, Wydad Casablanca and Algeria's Entente Setif, who won in 2014.
There is also the Nigerian club Enyimba, the only one from the Africa's most populous nation to win the continent's top club prize. They had back-to-back successes in 2003 and 2004 and have spent a decade since trying to recreate those glory days. They have a relatively easy start against Vital'O of Rwanda at home on Sunday.
There is a quick seven day turn over between the first and second legs and in just over a week's time the field will have whittle down to 16 from the 55 clubs who started the Champions League just one month ago.
Mark Gleeson has covered African football since 1985 for a variety of international titles. He is based in Cape Town.