Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2003
Issue No. 669
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Portrait of a pro:

Mahmoud El-Khatib:

African player of the century

By Galal Nassar

As a child Mahmoud El-Khatib played football with pebbles and tin cans -- it was his passion. As an adult, he played professionally around the world -- playing for Egypt's 'club of the century', and being crowned African'player of the century.'

Born on 30 October 1954 -- the tenth child of a civil servant -- El-Khatib -- known as "Bibo" -- says football has been an obsession for as long as he can remember. Spending his time playing football incessantly on the streets, his parents complained his shoe turnover was too high. And his brothers too complained -- that he would even kick them in his sleep.

"He never went to bed," they say, "without clutching his football and dreaming of scoring the winning goal of a crucial final."

They never thought he would, and his father never intended him to have the chance.

"He loathed my obsession at first," he says, recalling a time when his father stopped him from playing football with his friends -- banning the youngsters from their street ball play outside the family house.

His eagerness, however, could not be harnessed, and when the family moved to Ain Shams from Sharqiya in 1961, it took Mahmoud just three days to form an entirely new team in front of his school, and another in front of his new home.

In his first-ever school match, he scored three goals and took his team to easy victory. The following day, the headmaster declared him captain of the team.

It can be said that things just kept rolling from there.

El-Khatib moved up the ranks fast, soon playing at a different district level. He recalls one day when his father locked him in his room -- saying that he could not compete in an important district match because he needed to focus on his studies.

Again, his attempts to harness his young son's passion failed. El-Khatib climbed out of the window and ran off to the match. He scored six goals, winning his team the championship and receiving a cup, and the certificate for "Best Player".

"Back home my father was fuming," El-Khatib recalls. "But I showed him the cup and the certificate, and he became more understanding."

Practice and perseverance pushed him further in the field, and his acceptance at the nation's newly-established "sports secondary school" led him -- after a short stint with Ismaili -- to a place on the local Al-Ahli club.

In his first match with Al-Ahli, he scored three out of five goals.

"They didn't welcome me though at first," he says, "But things improved when I started scoring more goals."

His place as the team's best and most popular player confirmed itself fast, remaining until his retirement day in 1987.

El-Khatib had style and he had flair. He also had a hard-work ethic and set of principles that not once wavered.

Strikers, by nature of their position on the pitch, inevitably expose themselves to high levels of tackling and potential injury. El-Khatib holds the dubious honour of sustaining the highest number of injuries in the history of Egyptian football. Such is his dedication to the game that despite regular injury he was seldom absent from the pitch. In Egypt's 1977 match against Tunisia, he not only played with an injured leg, but also scored the winning goal. And once again with Nigeria, despite a head injury, he scored two goals in half an hour -- with his head.

There is much one can say about El-Khatib, and Egyptian football fans still marvel at this Egyptian legend of the pitch. But there are, in fact, several ways one can measure success in football.

El-Khatib holds the world record for goals scored during a championship season -- 37, one more than Germany's Muller, the previous holder. He has scored more than 450 goals and has been in the winning team of five African Championships. He has also been a highly sought-after player -- fought over, literally, by teams from around the world.

And when it comes to style, indeed El-Khatib ranks high, having always preferred the lively play of the Latin Americans.

El-Khatib recalls with pride the team's victory in the African Championship for the first time in 1982, and he speaks as well of being awarded the 1983 Golden Globe award for best African Player, and later going on to captain Egypt's win at the 1986 African Nations Cup -- a trophy which he received from President Hosni Mubarak in person.

When El-Khatib finally retired from the game in 1987, the decision was hard. It was only after four sleepless nights that he eventually made up his mind and announced to a disbelieving press conference that he was retiring. Many objected, but he insisted. The ensuing retirement celebrations were unprecedented in any Arab football club. All the way to the stadium, hooting cars bearing pictures of El-Khatib lined the streets. Fans filled the stadiums, the streets, and the clubs. They were celebrating not only the end of an era, but the history of Egyptian football as a whole.

El-Khatib is still actively involved in the field, and still one of the supporting pillars of Egyptian football and the spirit of a football-obsessed nation.

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