It’s a curiosity that while Egyptians Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Elneny, Mido, Amr Zaki and Ahmed Elmohamady are all readily familiar to fans across Europe, comparatively few would instantly recognise their shared nation’s greatest ever player.
For Egyptian football fans, one man stands head and shoulders above his every compatriot: Mohamed Aboutrika.
The reasons for the adoration he commands throughout his home country, and much of the Arab world, are plentiful and in fact many of them have little to do with football. Humanitarian work, support for the people of Gaza, and his being a symbol of the Egyptian revolution only scratch the surface.
But the humble man from Giza, with the degree in Philosophy, is most fondly remembered for his handling of the Port Said disaster, when 74 Al Ahly fans were killed in a riot after a league match against Al Masry in 2012.
In the dressing room, Aboutrika held a dying fan in his arms. “I’m glad I got to meet you,” were the 14-year-old’s final words. To this day, Aboutrika continues to carry the events of that tragic day with him.
Yet none of this should overshadow the undeniable talent Aboutrika boasted.
He was a dream of a footballer, with gifts that the similarly revered Arab idol, Zinedine Zidane, would be proud to show. Magical ball control, balletic pirouettes, defence-destroying passes and a history rife with goals. So the question must be asked: why is Aboutrika not a household name among modern football fans?
For a start, Aboutrika, who began his career at Tersana before moving to Al Ahly in 2004, had little interest in the riches of the European leagues. A man of the people, he cherished being around his family and countrymen above all else. The Ahlawy, his club’s famous ultras, adored him, and his astonishing achievements always retained a colloquial tint.
This is perfectly illustrated by the fact Aboutrika never won the African Footballer of the Year, coming closest when finishing second in 2008, but did win the more regional CAF Inter-Club Player of the Year on four occasions in 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2013.
For close to a decade Aboutrika was, in the succinct words of football journalist Gabriele Marcotti, “arguably the best footballer on Earth not plying his trade in Europe or South America.”
Between 2004 and 2011 he won seven Egyptian Premier League titles, two Egypt Cup winners medals and a remarkable five CAF Champions Leagues, all with his beloved Al Ahly. He was also named Egypt’s Player of the Year a record four times in a row between 2004 and 2007.
Global acclaim of sorts arrived belatedly at the 2006 Club World Cup when his brace against Mexico’s Club América secured third place for Al Ahly but, like most truly iconic players, Aboutrika grew in stature while representing his country; having the decisive say in two African Cup of Nations finals.
In 2006, Egypt claimed their second successive title in front of their own fans on a cold Cairo evening. The final against an Ivory Coast team boasting Didier Drogba and the Touré brothers went to penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes. With Drogba and Koné missing their spot kicks, the hopes of a nation rested on one man; the right man, Aboutrika.
With his teammates barely able to hide their nerves, the then 28-year-old, seemingly with ice running through his veins, sent Jean-Jacques Tizié the wrong way and the crowd inside Cairo International Stadium into hysterics.
Two years later, he scored three goals as he again led Egypt to the final against Cameroon. Then, at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra, came arguably Aboutrika’s second finest hour in his country’s colours.
On 76 minutes, with the match scoreless and extra-time becoming an ever increasingly formality, Mohamed Zidan’s incredible tenacity saw him dispossess Rigobert Song and square the ball to the onrushing and unmarked Aboutrika. Egypt’s hero slotted past Carlos Kameni just as calmly as he had done two years earlier against Tizié, handing his team a 1-0 victory and with it another Cup of Nations trophy. Shortly afterwards the 2008 BBC African Footballer of the Year award also found a worthy home with Aboutrika.
Sadly, Aboutrika never made it to the World Cup but he was able to play a major part in Egypt’s fine performances at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, starring in the memorable 4-3 defeat to Brazil. Aboutrika also missed Egypt’s triumphant 2010 = Cup of Nations tournament but was back to captain his country at the 2012 London Olympics where he once again rose to the occasion, leading the team to the quarter-finals.
Aboutrika retired from football in 2013 at the age of 35, leaving behind a lasting legacy of 38 goals in 100 appearances for his country and an astonishing 199 in 404 league matches; peerless prolificacy for a midfielder. But before hanging up his boots Aboutrika did partake in one brief stint at Baniyas in the United Arab Emirates, a loan deal he was reported to have agreed to only to help his club Al Ahly financially.
On his debut against Al Wasl, Aboutrika wore the number 74 in tribute to those who had perished in Port Said and the Egyptian community swelled the Dubai club’s stadium to levels rarely seen at regular league matches. In attendance were many Ahlawy, remarkably a select group from their fierce rivals Zamalek, and even many who cared not for football but couldn’t bear to forgo the national spectacle.
“We will never forget what he has done for Al Ahly and Egypt, and we love him for it,” one fan announced to The National newspaper. “Who doesn’t love Aboutrika?”
You suspect his adoration means far more to the man than any goal, cup or medal ever did.
Writer | Ali Khaled & Editor | Will Sharp