Cairo giants Al Ahly are no strangers to success in continental club competition but their seventh and latest African Champions League triumph must feel like the sweetest of them all.
A 2-1 away upset against holders Esperance in front of a hostile crowd in Tunisia on Saturday sealed a 3-2 aggregate win in the two-legged final and further entrenched their status as Africa’s top club side.
The triumph also extended their record-breaking number of wins in the continent’s most prestigious club competition and guaranteed a berth at next month’s Club World Cup in Japan.
However, the emotive resonance of their victory at the end of a testing year, along with their bold playing style, will provide the most satisfaction.
Al Ahly won the tournament having played just 15 competitive games since January – all but one of them in the pan-African competition.
They have also had to plot a path to glory without any domestic action – apart from a Super Cup match in September – since 74 of their supporters were killed in rioting during a league match in Port Said in February.
Club football has since been halted by Egyptian authorities, leaving Al Ahly to survive on a diet of cloistered training camps and friendly matches, many of them expensive trips to the Gulf region.
Many of the club’s influential “Ultras” fans, out of an estimated support base of 50 million, did not want them to play again until justice in the Port Said disaster was served.
But if there was any sense the Cairo club would lack sharpness and match fitness, it was quickly dispelled at the Rades Stadium on Saturday as they took the game to Esperance.
“The coach (Hossam Al Badry) told us to pile on pressure from the very beginning and even after our first goal he urged us to keep pressuring to grab the second and kill off he game,” midfield playmaker Abdallah El Saied explained.
Al Ahly scored on the stroke of half-time through Mohamed Nagui and were 2-0 up just after the hour mark through Walid Soliman, effectively leaving the hosts to score three goals to rescue the match.
Esperance had been fancied to retain the trophy after a 1-1 away stalemate in the first leg earlier this month but history was on Al Ahly’s side after they had previous experience of winning in Tunisia following a home draw.
In 2006, they snatched an injury-time winner through Mohamed Aboutrika to beat CS Sfaxien at the same stadium but the heady drama of that finish was eclipsed by Saturday’s fairytale showing.
The talismanic Aboutrika, now in the twilight of his career, squandered a late penalty which would have given Al Ahly a bigger winning margin on Saturday but it was quickly forgotten in the frenzy of the post-match celebrations.