CAIRO — Egypt's Al Ahly retained its African Champions League title in a highly-charged atmosphere on Sunday as fans clashed with police, flares and fireworks lit up the heavily-secured Cairo stadium and a goal-scorer celebrated with a hand gesture linked to supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
Al Ahly extended its record to eight continental titles by beating South Africa's Orlando Pirates 2-0 in the second leg of the final in the troubled capital for a 3-1 aggregate win. Second-half goals by veteran Mohamed Aboutrika and Ahmed Abdul Zaher secured the victory before Ahly had defender Sherif Abdel Fadil sent off late in the game.
Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour and interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi congratulated the team in a sign of the importance of the game for the national mood, with el-Beblawi praising the players' "high spirit, determination and will."
The match, secured by around 4,000 police officers using armored vehicles around the Arab Contractors stadium, was also seen as a test run for the Nov. 19 World Cup playoff in Cairo between Egypt and Ghana. Attended by a capacity 20,000 fans, it was the first game in Egypt with such a large number of supporters since the deadly Port Said stadium riot in 2012, a disaster which left 74 people dead, mostly Al Ahly fans, and changed the face of Egyptian football.
Tensions were raised hours before kickoff on Sunday when hundreds of fans briefly clashed with police outside the venue and hurled rocks. Police responded with tear gas to calm the crowd as some supporters tried to force their way into the stadium without tickets.
There were no reports of injuries and the game appeared to go off without any problems inside the venue, with Egypt under close scrutiny after FIFA ruled that World Cup playoff will go ahead later this month in Cairo despite safety concerns.
"The fans were ideal in the stadium," deputy minister of sport Basel Adel told state TV. "There were some issues in the beginning outside. God willing we will overcome this."
During play, riot police lined the athletics track between Al Ahly's famously politicized supporters and the field in the packed stadium, and the stadium was lit up with bright red flares and fireworks from the 54th minute when Aboutrika scored the opener from close range to help ensure he won a fifth title. The veteran benefited from a ricochet off a defender to steer the ball past goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa and then jumped the advertising boards and climbed up a fence to celebrate with fans.
Abdul Zaher tapped in at the far post to make certain of the victory in the 78th, and made a four-fingered hand signal during his celebration, a gesture in Egypt that commemorates the sit-in camp of Morsi supporters at the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque which was violently cleared by security forces in August, leaving hundreds killed.
"Yes I raised the sign of Rabaah," Abdul Zaher was quoted as telling Egyptian football website FilGoal, "but I didn't mean political excitement to any one side or fan. All I meant to do was to remember the dead, whether in Rabaah, any other citizen and even policemen."
Abdel Fadil was sent off in the 83rd minute after a second yellow card for a barge in midair on Pirates' midfielder Daine Klate, but Al Ahly held on for the final minutes.
Ahly is the most successful club in the competition, followed by Cairo rival Zamalek with five titles. The victory also qualified Al Ahly for the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco in December.
Inside the stadium, Ahly supporters sang a song before the match for their fellow supporters who died in the 2012 violence in Port Said, and put up posters remembering them, with one reading in English "Never Forget." Aboutrika also wore a T-shirt during the trophy celebrations with the number 72 printed on it, the number of Ahly supporters thought to have died in the Port Said disaster, the worst football-related violence in decades.
All major games in Egypt since then had been held away from Cairo and generally without fans until Sunday's final.
A police vehicle was damaged in the pre-match scuffles outside the stadium, with its windscreen and sirens completely smashed and police put up metal bars to organize fans' access to the stands. Clashes restarted briefly, prompting police to lob another round of tear gas, but no injuries were reported.
AP Sports Writer Gerald Imray contributed from Cape Town, South Africa.