Egypt's El Geish win African volleyball's greatest prize

Egypt's El Geish win African volleyball's greatest prize
The Egyptian side defeats Tunisian opposition to win the title for the first time and secure their place at the 2016 Club World Championships of volleyball.
5 min read
02 April, 2016
El Geish beat Tunisia's Esperance to th#ake the title [African Volleyball Confederation Facebook]
Volleyball fans made their way to the Cairo Stadium Complex on Friday for the conclusion of the Men's African Club Championship - a tournament that ended with the unexpected victory of Egyptian side El Geish.

Winning 3 sets to 1 (25-20, 23-25, 27-25, 25-21) over Tunisian team Esperance, the Cairo outfit now moves on to the 2016 FIVB Men's Club Championship, volleyball's top club tournament.

After finishing runners-up in 2007 and taking third place five years ago, El Geish were always going to be an outside bet for the title; few thought they might actually win it.

But the last time this competition was staged in Cairo, Egypt was a very different place.

The Arab Spring

In the spring of 2011, sandwiched in between two huge demonstrations in Tahrir Square, volleyball provided a diversion and a chance to celebrate as a club from the host nation beat Kenya Prisons 3-0 in the final.

Sport can be like that, giving the right victory at the right time and boosting the spirits of people who need it. But on this occasion it was more than that: al-Ahly Sporting Club, which has dominated African volleyball - lifting this trophy 11 times - is an iconic Egyptian sports association created in 1907.

Their hardcore football fans - the ultras... played a key role in the Arab Spring protests

Competing across a number of sports, their hardcore football fans - the ultras - along with the supporters of rival team, Zamalek, played a key role in the Arab Spring protests.

There was a sense, therefore, that al-Ahly's 2011 victory in the Men's African Club Championship, in front of more than 4,000 fans, seemed to be a victory for all of Egypt during the most difficult of times.

On that day in 2011, El Geish were on the podium - but bridesmaids - battling their way to a well-deserved third-place playoff victory against Rwanda University (3-0), and seeing from close range the positive impact of al-Ahly's win.

The euphoria of the home support clearly left its mark on the fellow Cairo club, who battled even harder this time to win the tournament at their sixth attempt.

The competition

The 2016 final was a fine match, with the Egyptians taking a tight first set 25-20, only to lose an even closer second by 23-25. Esperance de Tunis seemed to be in control of the contest - but the third went El Geish's way, 27-25. 

The fourth set was the least marginal of all, 25-21 to the Egyptians, and with it the title remained in Cairo.

Sherif ElShemerly, El Geish's coach,
celebrates his team's success [Facebook]

It was the same outcome as the even-tighter Pool C match that the two clubs had played out at the start of the week, which had been settled on a tiebreak.

El Geish's tough route to the final had seen them beating the likes of Algeria's Setif in the group stages, Espoir (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the quarters, and Swehly of Libya in the semi-finals.

Ahmed Salah was pivotal to their success, his precision serving earning him the tournament's Most Valuable Player Award. Like so many sports clubs in Egypt, El Geish also compete in football's Egyptian Premier League and the top flight of domestic basketball.

Losing finalists Esperance are no stranger to the feeling of winning the title on home soil; they did just that in the 2014 tournament, and in 1998 and 2000 too.

On four occasions the team from Tunis has lifted the trophy, but after losing the final three times in the past four years they will be feeling the sting of defeat more acutely than ever.

While Kenya has dominated the women's competition, the continental men's prizes are increasingly the preserve of Egyptian teams; the days of 1998-2002, when Tunisian sides won five back-to-back titles, seem to be fading fast.

There is always a way back for [Egypt's] rivals

A pending challenge

However, hope is not yet lost for the runners-up; despite the disappointment of defeat in yet another final, Esperance will take heart from the performance of many of their players; Saddam Hmissi set the standard for liberos at the tournament, while the work of Mehdi Ben Cheikh and Hichem Kaabi exemplified the North African side at their best.

In short, although Egypt's strong volleyball clubs are dominating at the moment there is always a way back for their rivals.

History teaches us that the men's game is, after all, a North African competition; since the tournament began in 1980 only teams from Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia have ever won the trophy, with just two runners-up from Cameroon and one from Kenya to trouble the pattern.

The memories of the 2011 tournament remain strong, and al-Ahly is still one of the leading names in African volleyball, but the champions from five years ago had to settle for fifth place after a quarter-final defeat to Esperance.

El Geish will now be considering the scale of the challenge that awaits them as they head to the Club World Championships later this year.

African champions have only won two of their past twenty matches in this tournament, so trying to wrestle control from Europe and South America will remain a struggle.

However, El Geish came into the 2016 Men's African Club Championship with all eyes on bigger names - and walked away with the trophy; they are unlikely to fear facing the world's greatest teams.

Olly Hogben is a sports commentator, presenter and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @bennettcomms