CAIRO: After clinching 99 titles in as many years, Egypt s Al Ahly – one of the most trophy-laden clubs in world football – is set to celebrate its centennial in style by hosting Barcelona.
For the millions of supporters of the Red Devils , facing off against the European champions is not just a fitting tribute to an illustrious past but also to their newly-acquired status on the international scene.
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.
The only previous encounter between the two clubs took place in 1961 and resulted in a 6-1 drubbing of the Egyptian outfit.
The 67,500 seats for Tuesday s game were snatched up within hours of going on sale, with ticket prices ranging from $4 to $525.
Barcelona took 1.5 million euros for the jubilee, which comes as the Spanish giants are involved in a thrilling end-of-season tussle with Real Madrid and Sevilla to retain their domestic Liga title, Seif Al-Nasr said.
Ahly s target will be to secure a 32nd home league triumph this year, a likely prospect as striker Mohammed Aboutreika 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 100th anniversary year.
After winning its second consecutive Africans Champions League trophy last year and clinching an unprecedented third spot in the intercontinental cup, Al Ahly has been in unstoppable form of late.
Al 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 Cairo club s history has always been closely tied to that of Egypt.
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.
However, the club s first chairman was finance ministry official Mitchel Ince.
Choosing Ince, a Briton, for this nationalist club was justified. He controlled the country s finances and was therefore able to finance the club. Nobody could have provided stronger support, leading Egyptian sports columnist Alaa Sadek said.
Ahly s victories, especially the early ones against the British, strengthened a feeling of national pride, said Sadek, whose three-tome encyclopedia on Al Ahly is to be released in August.
Al 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.
Al Ahly weightlifter Sayed Nosseir won the country s first ever Olympic gold medal in Amsterdam in 1928. Amr Shabana also added to the club s honours by clinching the world squash title in 2003 and powering on to the top spot in the rankings, which he still occupies.
The football club has had its share of heroes throughout the years, but all eyes Tuesday will be on Aboutreika, 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 colours even when the country s flag switched to green in 1924 after independence.
Among its most famous supporters were Saad Zaghlul, the nationalist leader struggled against British occupation, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, former president and champion of pan-Arabism. 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 dollars and limited fame in the West, Sadek said.