By David Onjili
There exist a group of sportsmen and women who transcend the sports disciplines they are famed for. They end up being political and (or) cultural symbols that stand the test of time. With this new found status, they sharply divide opinion. Mohamed Ali, Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio are just but a few. Egyptian born and former Al Ahly player, Mohamed Aboutrika stands heads and shoulders above all in the African continent.
Born in 1978 in the town of Giza, Aboutrika was to hone his skills at second division side Tersana. It is here that the first documented illustration of the inner man he was took place. He declined a pay rise after his enchanting displays won plaudits from many and the recognition of his then coach Hasan El Shazli. Why? Aboutrika believed that a teammate too deserved a pay rise since his skills were equally good. It was a case of all – well, both – or nothing.
“We need to stop this habit of praising a definite player. It isn’t Aboutrika who got the cup, but the whole team. Without the others’ efforts, I can’t ever make anything. Football is a game played by many players, it isn’t tennis or squash.” This was Aboutrika’s response after journalists singled him out when Al Ahly won the 2006 African Champions League. Without his team, he maintained, he was a nobody.
Despite his selflessness as a person, Aboutrika’s brilliance on the pitch was unmatched when he propelled Tersana to the first division of Egyptian football. Zamalek and Al Ahly, Egypt’s two most successful clubs, came calling for his services. In 2003/04 season, Al Ahly, also nicknamed the Red Devils, got their prized asset, and an era of dominance on the pitch thus began.
Aboutrika would spend the next decade (2004-2014) at Al Ahly, making 164 appearances and scoring 79 goals. Individually, Aboutrika won the Africa Best Player of the Year a record 4 times (2006, 2008, 2012 & 2013), was first runners up for the African Footballer of the Year in 2008, an award that includes African soccer stars in Europe too.
With the Egyptian national team, the Pharaohs, Aboutrika made 100 caps scoring 38 goals between 2001 and 2013. In 2006, the final against Ivory Coast would present an ideal moment for Aboutrika before the 74,100 strong spectators cheering at the International Stadium in Cairo. After a barren draw, Aboutrika would slot the winning penalty to earn the Pharaohs the first AFCON trophy since 1998. Two years later, he would prove decisive by scoring against keeper Carlos Kameni of the Black Stars of Ghana’s in the 76th minute as they retained the trophy in Accra.
Europe remains a top ideal destination for top African stars – the chance to play in the money leagues televised to global audiences is a massive pull. Yet, Aboutrika remained with Al Ahly, voted the African club of the century and the most successful club on the continent… He was in his late twenties when he made this decision.
The Port Said massacre
On February 1, 2012, the ugly head of football hooliganism reared itself in Egyptian football. In the end, 72 Al Ahly fans, 1 Al Masry fan and a police officer were dead. The game pitted Al Masry against Al Ahly at the Port Said Stadium, with the former leading by 3 goals to 1. An ugly bloodbath ensued that would lead to the Egyptian league being suspended for two years.
The genesis of this massacre can be traced to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution at the famed Tahrir Square. The Ultras Ahlawy, a group of die-hard Al Ahly supporters had taken to chanting anti-government revolutionary chants in most Al Ahly league games. On this day they were the targets. Witnesses recounted that the security agencies had not only allowed fans without tickets to attend the game but also failed to manage the crowds who went onto the pitch during each of the 3 goals that Al Masry would score on their way to victory.
From a very early age, Aboutrika was never in pursuit of wealth or fame; he was just a gifted footballer with a big heart whom the locals went on not just to love but adore.
When the chaos begun, police failed to open gates to allow Al Ahly fans, who were being targeted, to escape. In fact, there is evidence that the police actually opened the barriers separating the Al Ahly and Al Masry fans. Fans were stabbed, hit with clubs and others thrown off the stands. The Al Ahly players were protected by the police to their dressing room, which is also where a number of fans sought refuge.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Aboutrika, Mohamed Barakat and Emad Motaeb decided to retire from professional football even as the Egyptian Premier League was cancelled. Aboutrika helped a dying fan to the dressing room of his team Al Ahly, where he held him in his arms. “I’m glad I got to meet you,” were the 14-year-old’s final words.
Aboutrika would later rescind his retirement and don the Al Ahly jersey with the number 72 on it – in solidarity with of the 72 Al Ahly fans who perished in the massacre. He also visited each of the homes of the victims. This act of care would endear him to cult status not just to the Red Devils faithful but all Egyptian soccer fans.
Frozen assets and Qatar exile
The protests at Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring led to Mohamed Morsi being elected as president. The Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation to which Morsi claimed membership was finally recognized by government.
Egyptian football and politics are intertwined. The Ultras, a group of die-hard supporters were alleged by the Army to have been behind the demonstrations and key members of the brotherhood. When the army took over the leadership after toppling Morsi, they banned the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist group. Other Persian countries, save for Qatar, followed suit.
During this time, Aboutrika was a common figure at Tahrir Square, where he prayed. As several Egyptian journalists have observed, the Brotherhood needed a figure head. Since a big number of them were from the Ultras, it was easy to identify with Aboutrika who was already a footballing icon.
This allegiance, by design or default, has come back to haunt Aboutrika. He remains exiled in Qatar and his assets frozen at home, something that seems not to bother him. After all, from a very early age, he was never in pursuit of wealth or fame; he was just a gifted footballer with a big heart whom the locals went on not just to love but adore.
The lesson drawn here is that the entire career and accomplishments of his footballing brilliance is now being swept away because Aboutrika is not in tandem with the current regime. It would be a sad ending to a footballing genius, a man loved and adored but now exiled. What message does the Egyptian government want to send its youth? (