By Karim Azeb, Guest Blogger*
It was 76 minutes and 41 seconds into the 2008 African Cup of Nations final match between Egypt and Cameroon when Mohamed Zidane beats defender Rigobert Song to the ball and squares across the goal to Mohamed Aboutrika who calmly maneuvers the ball beneath Cameroon’s diving keeper to score the match-winning goal. This goal cemented Aboutrika’s place as the ‘superman’ of Egypt’s footballing history, was followed by his trademark celebration: dropping to his knees and touching his forehead to the ground in symbolic prayer. Aboutrika’s exploits are also admired outside Egypt. In 2008, BBC readers named him African Footballer of the Year, and CAF named him (or shafted him as, depending on your point of view) to the 2nd best African player in their African Footballer of the Year selection (the same year Egypt and Al Ahly took National Team and Club of the Year, respectively). But Aboutrika is also a hero off the field.
Mohamed Aboutrika began his career at Tersana football club in Egypt’s second division. In the middle of the 2003-2004 season, Aboutrika sealed a move to Egypt’s most popular and most successful team in the midseason transfer window: Al Ahly. It is here that he began to build his reputation as Egypt’s most talented player, scoring an incredible 11 goals in his first 13 games for Al Ahly.
On March 31, 2004, Aboutrika debuted for Egypt’s national team against Trinidad & Tobago, scoring his first goal for the Pharaohs (the match ended in a 2-1 win for Egypt). In 2005 Aboutrika aided Al Ahly in claiming their first Egyptian League title in 4 years as well as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League title, which punched Al Ahly’s ticket to the 2005 FIFA Club World Championship in Japan.
In 2006 Aboutrika led Al Ahly to a third consecutive league title, finishing the competition as the top scorer with 18 total goals. Aboutrika continued to dominate during the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations tournament, scoring important goals against Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in the group stages, setting up Amr Zaki’s game-winning goal in the semi-finals against Senegal, and scoring the decisive 4th penalty in the championship game against Cote d’Ivoire. Al Ahly’s victory in the 2006 CAF Champions league was highlighted by Aboutrika placing as the tournament’s top scorer with 8 goals, which he followed up with the 2006 FIFA Club World Championship, also finishing the tournament as top scorer with 3 goals in 3 games.
To cap off his footballing achievements, Aboutrika led Al Ahly to four more league titles between 2007-2011 and helped Egypt complete an unprecedented hat trick of consecutive ACN championships in 2010. Ultimately, however, Aboutrika’s achievements are not constrained to the football pitch in the minds of his fans.
In Egypt there is a popular story regarding Aboutrika’s contract negotiations with Tersana. As the narrative goes, Tersana wanted Aboutrika and a teammate to sign new contracts and they offered Aboutrika a much higher salary than his teammate, but Aboutrika refused to believe he was more valuable than his teammate and insisted on taking the same salary as his teammate. Aboutrika, on the pitch and off, has been very conscious of his influence on Egyptian football fans, and signed with Tersana at the same salary as his teammates.
This story, like so many others of its kind, is what endears Aboutrika to the Egyptian people. He is not just a football hero, he is our hero. He plays football for the people, embodying Al Ahly’s reputation as The People’s Club. He refused approaches from European clubs so he could continue to play exclusively for the Egyptian people. He is a United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador and a World Food Programme Ambassador Against Hunger. When Aboutrika plays, Egypt stops everything to watch. When he speaks, the people listen. And when the people speak, Aboutrika listens. When they ask, he answers. He is a successful footballer, a devout Muslim, a generous philanthropist, a human rights advocate, and a supporter of Egypt’s revolution.
Mohamed Aboutrika played for the club of the poor, the club of an independent and free Egypt, and now he plays – or, rather, does not play – for the people and their future. As February 1, 2012 will go down in Egypt’s history as a day of national mourning following the deaths of 74 football fans in the devastating Port Said riot, February 2 will be remembered as the day Egypt’s military rulers forced Aboutrika, our hero, to retire and help put the final nails in their own coffin.
*Karim Azeb is a college student majoring in History and Political Science and minoring in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is also a fantastic football player and dedicated Ahlawy (and yes, Sophia is his big sister).