JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Aug 5 – Club football returns on Thursday to Egypt, the home of African giants Al Ahly and Zamalek, after being suspended since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahly have won a record 19 and Zamalek 11 of the 34 Confederation of African Football (CAF) trophies lifted by Egyptian clubs, making the country the most successful in the continent.
The Egypt Premier League is the third major African championship to restart after the Moroccan Botola Pro 1 on July 27 and the Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle 1 on August 1.
Big-time football restarts in sub-Saharan Africa on Saturday with the South African Nedbank (FA) Cup semi-finals, followed three days later by the resumption of the Absa Premiership.
Zamalek will play Al Masry in the opening Egypt Premier League fixture while fellow Cairo club Ahly are scheduled to meet ENPPI Sunday.
Ahly are the runaway leaders with 49 points from 17 matches under Swiss coach Rene Weiler and are virtually certain to be crowned champions a record-extending 42nd time.
But the contest for second place, and a CAF Champions League slot, between Al Mokawloon al Arab, Pyramids FC and Zamalek could go to the wire.
Mokawloon have 33 points, Pyramids 32 and Zamalek, who have two matches in hand, 28 halfway through the 34-round season.
Zamalek president Mortada Mansour had threatened to withdraw his club from the league, saying he did not want his players to risk contracting the COVID-19 disease.
He then told his French coach, Patrice Carteron, to decide whether the 12-time Egyptian champions should continue their campaign.
– ‘Must play to avoid sanctions’ –
Carteron said he “did not want the league to resume because it will result in fixture congestion, but Zamalek must play to avoid sanctions”.
The 109-year rivalry between Ahly and Zamalek is the greatest in African football, with no lack of controversy this season.
Zamalek achieved a rare recent success over Ahly by winning the Egypt Super Cup on penalties in the United Arab Emirates and the shootout was followed by a mass brawl.
Soon after, Zamalek did not turn up for a league fixture with Ahly, who were declared winners after officials rejected a claim by their rivals that they were delayed in heavy traffic.
In the Golden Boot competition, former Ahly star Abdallah el Said has scored 13 goals for Pyramids, four more than second-place Mohamed Sherif of ENPPI.
Tunisian Seifeddine Jaziri (six goals) of Al Mokawloon and Nigerian Junior Ajayi (five) of Ahly are the only foreigners among the leading 12 scorers.
Meanwhile, the Zambia Super League will come to a premature end on Thursday, seven rounds ahead of schedule, due to a surge of coronavirus cases in some clubs.
28 players and staff at Forest Rangers contracted the disease and 19 at league leaders NAPSA Stars.
If NAPSA defeat fellow title hopefuls Rangers they will become champions for the first time as they hold a one-point lead over 12-time Super League winners Nkana.
Zesco United, Zanaco and Green Eagles are the other clubs with a mathematical chance of finishing first.