Forget football, Zamalek's focus has shifted to the Basketball Africa League

Zamalek are not far behind fierce rivals Al Ittihad when it comes to league titles, with the latter leading with 15 trophies to 13. Ittihad are the current champions, though Zamalek qualified for the BAL the season prior by winning the league. Zamalek

Zamalek's football team may have lost the most recent final of the CAF Champions League to Al Ahly, but the inaugural edition of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) offers them a shot at continental supremacy in a different sporting code.

The winners of the 1992 FIBA Africa Champions Cup qualified for the BAL by winning the 2018/19 Egyptian Super League, ending a 12-year drought. They have been drawn into Group C along with AS Douanes, Ferroviário de Maputo and GS Pétroliers.

According to Tarek Said Sallman, the director of their basketball operations and a former player for the club, they head into the BAL, which tips off on May 16 on ESPN, believing that they have a genuine chance of winning the tournament.

"Since me and my generation of colleagues stopped playing in 2009, Zamalek's trophy cupboard got no more championships until the time we came back [to the] coaching staff -- Wael Badr (former technical manager), Samir Gouda (current assistant coach), and myself," Sallman told ESPN.

"We worked hard with the players to put back the winning spirit inside them and we succeeded in getting the league trophy back to the white castle."

Al Ittihad of Alexandria are the most successful team in the history of the Egyptian Super League with 15 titles, including the 2019/20 prize, while Zamalek have 13. Gezira have 10 titles, Al Ahly have five.

Despite their illustrious 110-year history, Sallman insisted that Zamalek will not take the BAL lightly -- particularly given the effort he himself put into planning the COVID-19-affected tournament.

"The preparation for the BAL was very hard. We have been working on it since May 2019 -- since the first meeting in Angola," said Sallman.

"When COVID came, personally, I was so disappointed about not playing it in March [2020], as it was scheduled to be.

"But we didn't lose hope and the BAL was always directly connected by weekly Zoom meetings with all the parties and all the teams, telling us not to lose hope because the BAL tournament would be played no matter what.

"I consider this championship like my baby. It's like one of my babies, really. They all know here in Egypt about its administration, the players -- everyone here knows that this tournament is like a baby for Tarek Sallman.

"I am working, by the way, as a volunteer -- I am not getting paid anything. I sacrifice my time, my power and my energy for the sake of reaching a good place with Zamalek and getting first place."

Although Sallman declined to single out players who will be crucial to Zamalek's title challenge, centre Anas Osama Mahmoud is one who is never far from the headlines.

The 25-year-old from Giza was on the books of the Louisville Cardinals from 2014 to 2018 and has represented club and country with distinction.

Zamalek will be determined to fly the flag high to show that they're the worthy team, despite losing the most recent domestic tournament to fierce rivals Al Ittihad.

"Basketball is the second most popular game in Egypt after football. Handball along the years with [the Egyptian national team's] world achievements is trying to take the second place, but basketball is still in the heart of the audience," claimed Sallman.

The other football clubs in the BAL

While Zamalek's basketball team has played second fiddle to its football outfit over the years, the opposite could be said of Angola's Petro de Luanda. At their club, the basketball team has been more successful continentally than their football outfit. Petro were African basketball champions in 2006 and 2015.

At the 2018/19 Africa Basketball League (formerly FIBA Africa Champions Cup, now replaced by the BAL), Petro were eliminated in the quarter-finals by eventual champions and fierce local rivals Primeiro de Agosto, but Petro qualified for the BAL by winning the Angolan Basketball League that season.

Petro were top of the table once again when the league was cancelled in 2019/20 due to COVID-19 and recently picked up the 2020/21 championship too, beating Interclube 3-0 in the final.

Their football team made the semi-finals of the 2001 CAF Champions League, losing to Mamelodi Sundowns on penalties. In the 2019/20 season and the ongoing 2020/21 campaign, they were eliminated in the group stage. Zamalek, incidentally, have also suffered a shock group stage exit this season.

For Zamalek and Petro, this has not been an ideal season continentally in football terms, but the basketball sides will each feel they have every chance of writing their names into the BAL history books.

Among the other BAL contestants, US Monastir, AS Douanes, AS Salé, FAP, AS Police and Ferroviário de Maputo all have football sides, but none played in the CAF Champions League this season.