Football is cruel at times. On Monday, just prior to the final game of the Egyptian Premier League season, Ricardo Soares was asked whether it would be his last as head coach of Al-Ahly.
“Why would it be? It’s the last game of this season,” he said. “But now we prepare for the next.”
On Wednesday the Portuguese tactician was fired. He had been in the job for just two months.
“The club would like to thank Soares and his assistants for their service and we wish them all the best in the future,” Al-Ahly said in a statement. And that was that.
Soares was appointed in June and knew as the season came to an end, that his job was under threat. “I am proud of the time I spent with Al-Ahly so far, I accepted playing youth-team players and I know that the club doesn’t tolerate disappointing results.”
It is certainly true that the most successful club in Egypt and Africa has a low threshold for what it considers to be disappointing results. Pitso Mosimane knows all about that. He was appointed in September 2020 and delivered two African Champions League titles, to take the club’s tally to 10. He also made the final in May though the Red Giants lost to Morocco’s Wydad AC. Even with such success, the South African had to deal with plenty of criticism from former players.
Such continental commitments made it hard for Al-Ahly to challenge at home. In 2021, they finished four points behind bitter rivals Zamalek and by the time Mosimane left in May, Al-Ahly were in third with Zamalek again leading and Pyramids in second. Bringing in Soares was a last-ditch attempt to get back into the top two.
Under Soares, the 10-time African champions won just seven of their 14 league games, not terrible but not good enough for a team such as Al-Ahly as they finished third, seven points behind Zamalek. It was the first time in 30 years that the team had not ended the season in the top two.
That Al-Ahly had been busy in Africa and the FIFA Club World Cup earlier that year, and could have been feeling the effects of a long season, had not spared Mosimane from criticism and was certainly not something that would help Soares.
There were plenty of excuses: Injuries to players such as Mohamed Sherif, Amr Solaya, Akram Tewfik and Hussein Al-Shehat. Others were obviously tired and Soares used a number of young players as the games came thick and fast which didn’t help results. It was not only club commitments but Al-Ahly supply several players to the national team that made the final of the African Cup of Nations in January and February, and World Cup qualification in March.
An early loss to title rivals Pyramids was a major setback and Soares never really recovered. It was a difficult situation for a man who had never worked outside Portugal before. In early August, there were signs of frustration after a 0-0 draw with Pharco.
“I wanted to rest Ali Maaloul and Hossam Hassan but I had to start them, Mahmoud Wahid didn’t feel fit to start and Hossam is our only fit striker,” Soares said. “Losing points affects the players’ confidence, and injuries are never good for us. I am here to defend the players, we play in difficult circumstances.”
As well as fatigue and injuries, there were complaints about decisions from officials. “(S)tandards must be set for refereeing controversies,” the 47-year-old added. “Last game, the Contractors player was inside the box before the penalty kick was taken and the referee didn’t intervene. Today the referee ruled out our goal after a long VAR check, while last game it only took VAR 20 seconds to decide that our goal was offside.”
The pressure continued. After a victory over ENPPI on Aug. 24, Soares refused to answer questions in the press conference. “I apologize for not wanting to answer any questions at the moment,” Soares said. “We played a game every three days and almost every senior player is not here because of many injuries. I don’t want to make excuses, but in normal circumstances, Al-Ahly can win everything next season.”
But they were seen as excuses.
“I believe (the) Al-Ahly board explained the situation to Soares before he came to Egypt, that’s why he’s responsible for the results,” club legend Ahmed Belal said in early August. “Both the coach and the players are responsible for the recent setbacks, excuses are not accepted.”
By that time, there were already rumors of who would replace Soares once the season ended. Carlos Queiroz had left the Egyptian national team just months before and was available. He knew some of the players and had, unlike Soares, vast international experience. Vahid Halilhodzic had been fired by Morocco in August and was also linked.
Such hard-bitten coaches may be necessary. Coaching Al-Ahly means challenging for league and African titles but as well as the chance for glory, it also comes with a lot of pressure, stress and criticism. Ricardo Soares knows that after just two months in the job, and soon it will be somebody else in one of the hottest seats in world football.