|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
25 - 31 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The red and the white
Arguably the best striker and top scorer of country and continent alike, he terrifies goalkeepers and defenders wherever he goes. Yet controversy dogs this star, as his battles on and off the pitch with players, referees and fans threaten time and again to put a premature end to his career
Profile by Inas Mazhar
Hossam Hassan, the bad boy of Egyptian soccer, is known for far more than his famed temper tantrums. On Tuesday 9 January, Hassan was hoisted aloft by his ecstatic teammates following a 3-1 victory over Zambia in a friendly match organised at the Cairo Stadium. The reason for the celebration? Hassan had just become the first Egyptian, African or Arab player to achieve a record-breaking score of 151 international matches. The world record of 150 caps had been held until then by Germany's Lothar Matthaeus, who played his last final at the 2000 European Games in Portugal. Hassan, in fact, could have broken the record long ago had he not been dropped during the era of Dutch coach Ruudi Kroll, who left him out of the 1996 finals in South Africa.
Born on 10 August 1966 in Helwan, he started playing football 21 years ago just like every other boy in Egypt, in the street. Hassan and his twin brother, defender Ibrahim, joined the Helwan Club and were soon picked by Ahli scouts to join the club's juniors team. As a teenage starter in a friendly match against Norway in Oslo on 10 September 1985, Hossam made his debut as a promising, talented and skillful player. But after joining his club's first team, Ahli, he had to wait almost two years for a regular berth on the national team. His first time as a main player with the national team was a 7 March 1986 match against Senegal at the African Nations Cup. Egypt was hosting the event. Since then, he has scored 109 goals for Ahli and two for Zamalek, later winning the National League Championship title 12 times, the FA Cup seven times, the African Champions Cup in 1987 and the African Winners Cup in '85, '86 and 1993.
"I never thought about records or statistics because I knew that was someone else's job," he says. "Mine was to give my best for my club and score goals for its victory and my record -- even though I never believed that I could break the world record. In fact, I only found out about it through the media, who have been following me for the past year counting my caps and telling me that I would soon be in the history books if I broke the record. To tell you the truth, the media drew my attention to it, so I tried to overcome my injury and played as much as I could in order to break the record," Hassan finishes this rapid-fire explanation and draws a deep breath. "Finally, I did it," he adds incredulously, almost as an afterthought.
The balding striker was on the Egyptian team at their last FIFA World Cup appearance in Italy in 1990. Egypt put on an impressive show, drawing with the Netherlands 1-1 before narrowly failing to get past the first round. Coach Mahmoud El-Gohari was in charge of the team then and is back at the helm today.
From top: football's bad boy, unrepentant as usual; Hassan at his peak with Zamalek; as devoted family man; with his team-mates, celebrating his world record; netting another goal
photos: Hossam Diab & Ossama Abdel-Nabi
"He is the best player I have ever seen on the pitch," national team coach El-Gohari, himself something of a legend, enthuses today. "Off the pitch, he is a dear son to me. We have been working together for more than 15 years now. If you look at our CVs you will find that they are very similar. Hossam played 130 caps with me, either with Ahli, when I used to coach the first team, or with the national team. He is my best striker, scorer and sometimes a playmaker too. He is an all-round player: he can play everywhere and can change the results to his team's favour any time -- at crucial times. He is full of enthusiasm and encourages his teammates when conveying my instructions." Adds El-Gohari: "I've always been sure of Hossam's talents and skill. I've always known he would never let me down, and I still have the same confidence in him, even now he is 34."
Hassan played at the African Nations Cup finals in 1986, when Egypt hosted the major sporting event of the continent, and went on to score seven goals in the same competition in 1998, tying him for top scorer in the championship as Egypt again took the African title. Egyptian fans and officials were disappointed, however: he was nominated as the best African player at the end of the year, but the title went to a Moroccan player based in Europe. "I was surprised and disappointed. I expected that my performance, described as superb by the local and foreign media not only during the African championship but also throughout the year, would stake my claim to the title. Even now I don't know why I didn't even make runner-up," Hassan says dejectedly. Then he cheers up, explaining that he overcame the setback and just kept concentrating on the game. His aim is to be chosen African Player of the Year before he retires. If that happens, he will be following in the footsteps of legendary Egyptian player Mahmoud El-Khatib, the only player in this country's football history to have received that honour (he won the title in 1983).
Hassan hasn't always been on good terms with his coaches, however, whether countrymen or foreigners, at the club or the national level. His ego and hot temper have always created friction. The clashes with Kroll on the national team are well known; they were preceded by similar battles with another former national team coach, Mohsen Saleh. Hossam and his brother even attacked their coach at home once, in an incident that made headlines and then caused their suspension. Hassan was also suspended several times by his former club, Ahli, for disgracing it in a league match years ago when he took off his shirt and threw it to the ground, before proceeding to stomp on it in rage.
"Anything related to football makes me nervous and when I'm on the pitch I don't know what I'm doing or saying. I only think about football -- playing and scoring, and that's it. But I never meant what I did to players or referees. It's just that at the time, I was furious." Hassan's temper has also won him few fans among the media. "I can't say we are enemies, but we aren't friends either. Strictly business, as you call it," he explains. Still, the press never fails to cover his comings and goings.
Many players here dream only of exporting their talents. Why, observers wonder, hasn't Hassan sought fame in Europe, the base of the most powerful league championships, like other Egyptian football professionals? The success stories include Hani Ramzi, Yasser Radwan, Abdel-Sattar Sabri, Mohamed Emara and Hazem Imam. The fact is that Hassan has also been the cause of considerable controversy in the European clubs he has joined. Most of his conflicts there have been with the management. He and his brother Ibrahim have made themselves something of a reputation: they do not respect the deals they make, they break their contracts with no advance notice... Hassan, who is better known and more in demand than Ibrahim, always insists that his brother accompany him. Together, they played for the Greek club Paok and Neufchatel of Switzerland in the early 1990s. But no sooner had the season ended than they rushed back home to Ahli. "It was always for emotional reasons that I could never go through with it in Europe. I've always been attached to my brother, so I ask the club who is interested in me to take on Ibrahim as well. When the management agrees to that and we travel together, it's the club and the family here in Egypt that we miss. That's affected our performance and attitudes, and so we were never able to continue," he says sadly.
Hassan regrets this, however, especially because playing in Europe would have given his career a definite boost. "It could have given me more experience, and international fame. I would have loved to play in Europe, especially in the Italian League, because it is very powerful," he confesses.
Even for someone who has made so many controversial moves that run-of-the-mill behaviour would come as a shock, Hassan's decision to abandon his club, Ahli, for arch-rivals Zamalek last summer was unprecedented. The world of Egyptian soccer was aghast at what was described as the transfer of the century. Ahli fans saw Hassan as a disloyal, ungrateful villain and accused him of betraying his club. Zamalkawis, on the other hand, hailed him as a hero come to secure them the League Championship title they had lost to Ahli for seven years running.
"This is professionalism," says Hassan today. "It has nothing to do with ungratefulness or disloyalty. I didn't leave Ahli by myself: I was forced to go. I had problems with the head coach, Reiner Tsobeil, and the management didn't do anything about it or try to reach a compromise. Instead, they renewed the man's contract and they showed no interest in renewing my brother's or my contract. I felt we were not needed anymore. We had to earn our living and keep playing. Since Zamalek's offer was the best, we accepted it," he says with an eloquent shrug.
This star striker is now focused on his new task of living up to his fans' expectations and winning the National League title with Zamalek. "It was tough for the first time to swap to the red and white stripes [Zamalek's colours] after wearing red for 20 years, but I got used to it," he reflects.
And while the Egyptian Football Association and Zamalek are planning special celebrations, featuring world football celebrities, for March, Ahli do not seem interested in joining the festivities in honour of their former hero. Instead, they are about to celebrate an occasion of their own: their African best of the century selection.
And Hassan himself? He still has a few tasks to complete. Breaking the record for international matches was only the beginning. With 78 international goals, he has another target in mind: to break the world record of 83 goals, set by Hungary's Ferenc Puskas. "That is what I'll be working on in the future. Why not, when I'm only five goals short of the record?"
Off the pitch, this driven, agitated man is a totally different person. "He's a loving father and caring husband. He is so calm at home. He spoils Omar, Yara and Zeina, and he never listens to me when I tell him to stop pampering the kids. His excuse is always that he hasn't enough time to spend with them, so there is no time to say no or make rules," laughs his wife, Howeida.
Still, when he is not busy being a peaceful family man, Hassan shows no signs of quitting the game. "I want to continue playing until I feel that I can give no more. I want to play as many matches as I can and score as many goals as I can," he says with determination.
He has no specific plans after retirement, but then, for once, he will want to steer clear of football -- unless it is absolutely necessary for him to become involved in the administration of technical matters for his club or the national team. Nor does he intend to follow the usual career paths ageing sports stars take when they no longer have what it takes on the field. A TV commentator, journalist or sports agent? Hardly. With Hossam Hassan, it's all or nothing.
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time