CAIRO: The stars of Cairo football club Al-Ahly conquered Africa twice this year to emerge as continental kings. Last February, an Ahly-dominated Egypt team won the African Nations Cup a record fifth time with a penalty shootout victory over Ivory Coast before a capacity 80,000 crowd here.
In November, Ahly retained the African Champions League in dramatic fashion with midfield maestro Mohamed Aboutraika scoring the winner two minutes into stoppage time against CS Sfaxien of Tunisia. And this month Ahly exceeded expectations by finishing third in the FIFA Club World Cup with victories over Auckland City of New Zealand and Club America of Mexico in Japan.
Ahly claim to have 40 million supporters across the Middle East and the crowd that welcomed the Red Devils home from Tokyo was even larger than that which celebrated the Nations Cup triumph. But amid the glory came tragedy as 22-year-old fullback Mohamed Abdelwahab collapsed 35 minutes into an August training session and died of heart complications en route to a Cairo hospital.
Mohamed was with us all the time and we sometimes felt he was there on the pitch, confessed captain Shady Mohamed after Ahly lifted the Champions League a record-equalling fifth time.
If memories of Abdelwahab, a member of the Nations Cup-winning team, evoke sadness, the image of the smiling Aboutraika was a source of pride in the sandy backstreets of the Egyptian capital where Ahly are revered.
Often slipping undetected into his own half to gain possession, Aboutraika squashed the myth that although north African footballers possess discipline and technique, they lack the flair of those from sub-Saharan nations.
At the Nations Cup, Egypt beat Libya, drew with Morocco and beat weakened Ivory Coast to top their Nations Cup group, outclassed the Democratic Republic of Congo, and edged Senegal in a tense semi-final.
The goalless 120-minute decider was no classic as evenly-matched teams cancelled each other out and veteran goalkeeper Essam al-Hadary proved the hero, saving two penalties, including one from Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.
Ahly beat surprise packets CS Sfaxien 1-0 to win the Champions League after a drawn first leg in Cairo triggered premature Tunisian celebrations that infuriated coach Manuel Jose.
There was some consolation for Tunisia in the African Confederation Cup as Etoile Sahel pipped Moroccan military club FAR Rabat on away goals after a 1-1 aggregate stalemate in a fiery final.
The World Cup in Germany proved a massive flop for Africa with only Ghana getting beyond the pool phase, and they were swept aside by defending champions Brazil in the first knockout round as easily as the 3-0 score line suggests.
After losing to eventual champions Italy, the Black Stars of Ghana shocked the Czech Republic and overcame the United States, but could ill afford the absence of suspended Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien against the Brazilians.
Exciting Ivory Coast were best of the rest followed by dour Angola. More was expected of Tunisia, who amassed only one point, while Togo brought only shame to Africa with threats to boycott matches over bonus disputes.
Togo were fined 80,000 dollars, but the World Cup organisers harboured no grudge against the continent, granting it an additional sixth place when South Africa in 2010 becomes the first African hosts of the showpiece.