When Alex McLeish was announced as the new manager of Egyptian Premier League side Zamalek earlier this year his arrival was billed as quite the coup for a club of such stature. 65 days later, though, the former Aston Villa and Scotland boss was gone having taken charge for just 10 games.
So what happened to McLeish? Why was a coach with such pedigree and experience chewed up and spat out by the Egyptian game so quickly? It had very little to do with the Scot, in fact. As the fourth manager to leave Zamalek just this season, McLeish is hardly alone in his experience at the club.
Zamalek have become one of the most toxic organisations in Arab football, and much of that is down to their president Mortada Mansour. The sport certainly isn’t short of erratic and unstable chairmen and directors, but even by such a standard Mansour raises the bar. He is to blame for the club’s recent turmoil.
Mansour made his mind up on McLeish within just a few weeks. It’s true that the Scot endured a difficult start at the club, winning only two of his opening five matches in charge. From then on McLeish was doomed, with the Zamalek president seeking to undermine his manager at every turn. He didn’t stand a chance.
It didn’t matter that by the time of his exit McLeish had collected six wins and two draws from his 10 games in charge of the Cairo club. Nothing mattered by that stage because Mansour had already decided the Scot’s fate, and had already set about forcing McLeish out of the club.
With the former Birmingham and Rangers boss just a matter of weeks into his contract in Cairo, Mansour would have had to part with a hefty fee to dismiss McLeish. And so he began an operation to push the Scot out of the club, appointing four competing coaches to reduce McLeish to little more than a bit-part role. During training he could only watch as Mansour’s men took over right in front of him.
But this was only the latest episode in what has been a string of bizarre and controversial incidents involving Mansour. Not so long ago he labelled the Zamalek support “terrorists” and was sentenced to a year in prison last year after defaming the lawyer of one of the club’s ultras supporters groups.
Then there was former Zamalek manager Mido’s claims that Mansour brought in Islamic scholars to exorcise “black magic” against his players in order to force the former Egyptian international out of the club. “Before the last game against Smouha in the Egyptian Premier League, the president of the club set up a meeting with me and [assistant coach] Hazem Emam,” Mido claimed just weeks before he left Zamalek.
“He claimed that I should not include Bassem Morsy and Kahraba in the starting line-up because they were cursed with black magic and that the curse would only be exorcised the following week.” The fact that Mansour managed to lure such a proven and renowned coach like McLeish in such circumstances was quite remarkable, and perhaps says as much about the Scot as the club’s president.
Now Zamalek face an uncertain future with their stubborn chief still holding a grip of the club. No manager of any great repute will surely take the job considering what has happened to McLeish, Mido and the rest there recently. Mansour is sabotaging his own club and is doing so for little reason than to massage his own ego and sense of control. It’s little wonder his own supporters have turned so strongly against him.
McLeish’s arrival in Egypt could have heralded a new age for the national game. He could have forged a path for some of Europe’s most accomplished coaches, boosting Arab football’s standing around the world. As it turned out, the Scot’s arrival only underlined what is so badly wrong with one of Egypt’s biggest clubs. He only lasted 65 days but Zamalek’s problems can be traced much further back than that.