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Zamalek's new boss Alex McLeish: Egyptian football takes new turn?

Indeed, Egyptian football is a feverish arena, even when compared with some of the game’s most frenzied fixtures

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

Alex McLeish is accustomed to some of European football’s biggest and fiercest rivalries. The Scottish football coach has sat in the dugout for Old Firm and Birmingham derbies, but it’s unlikely he will have ever experienced anything like what Cairo will offer him. The new Zamalek manager might be in for something of a culture shock.

Indeed, Egyptian football is a feverish arena, even when compared with some of the game’s most frenzied fixtures. Although McLeish’s debut as Zamalek manager hardly got that point across, with the Cairo club playing at an empty stadium amid a government-ordered ban of supporters at the Petro Sport Stadium.

The Scot suffered a 3-1 defeat to Entag El-Harby on his bow, leaving Zamalek six points adrift of Martin Jol’s Al Ahly side at the top of the Egyptian Premier League table. McLeish has been brought in to revive the club’s ailing championship challenge, with the former Rangers and Standard Liege coach also in need of a fresh start after a stagnant spell. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

In Egypt McLeish will face a different kind of challenge to the one he has become used to in England. At both Birmingham and Aston Villa, the Scot was charged with staving off the threat of relegation. He was concerned only with “fire-fighting” as he puts, but now he has been hired to win titles at the opposite end of the table.

As Aston Villa manager McLeish became the public embodiment of everything wrong with the Midlands club. A campaign was led against the Scot, with fans demanding his exit long before the axe finally fell. In the time since, however, it has become apparent that Villa’s issues under McLeish were certainly not all of his making, with the club now on the brink of relegation from the Premier League after a gradual - but steady - slide over the past few years.

At Rangers, however, winning came naturally to McLeish. In Glasgow he was expected to deliver success as a prerequisite, winning two Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups in just five years as manager there. Perhaps a return to a team in the upper echelons of a league table will reinvigorate McLeish.

“It would have been easier not to take this job but Zamalek are one of the biggest teams in Africa and the Middle East, which is quite some accolade for the club,” the former Aston Villa and Birmingham City manager told the Daily Mail. “It’s a great challenge to try and win a title because in England, I’ve been fire-fighting for a long time.”

'Needed to get out'

“I needed to get out. I’ve done Scotland, I’ve managed Rangers which was a delight and I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to try something different, so here I am. The fans here are fanatical. If you think that there are 25 million people here in Cairo and it’s half and half between us and Al Ahly that gives you an idea of how big this club is. And it’s the same with the rest of Egypt. It’s the sport for real people here, just like it is for us in Scotland.”

The 57-year-old’s appointment at Zamalek comes attached with a more profound meaning, though. His arrival in Egypt illustrates how the European game’s attitude towards football in Africa and throughout the Arab world is changing. He might not be a member of the sport’s elite by any stretch of the imagination - largely operating in the bottom half of the Premier League table and in peripheral leagues like Belgium or Scotland - but he has shown how those of a certain typecast are now willing to think somewhat differently.

Egypt isn’t the most obvious of destinations for a football coach like McLeish - nor for Jol - but with more appointments like theirs that presumption could be about to change.The two men could set a precedent for those of a similar mind and willingness to try something different, not because they are especially big names but because their middling standing shows what North Africa can offer everyone, not just the very best. Their respective decisions were not primarily money-motivated, like so many European coaches who make the move away from the continent.

McLeish has a point to prove at Zamalek, and he should be applauded for seeking to revitalize his career in a place not many in Europe will even take notice. The Scot recognizes, however, that there are more than enough eyes on him in Egypt, even if they weren’t in the stands for his debut.