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An Egyptian enigma

Alaa Abdel-Ghani recalls Hussein Hegazi, Egypt's first soccer export

When a 20-year-old Egyptian joined Dulwich Hamlet Football Club in September 1911, little did he realise how much of a controversy he would kick up in the space of a couple of months.

Hussein Hegazi was born in Cairo on 14 September 1891. Showing early potential, the young Hussein played in his first football competition whilst still at primary school, scoring three goals. It was a pattern that became the norm, going on to score for the El-Saideya High School and then the National Sporting Club -- competing against teams chiefly drawn from the British army bases, and government offices in the Middle East.

Despite his moderate height and light build, Hegazi favoured the centre forward role -- a position he excelled at, netting a record-breaking 57 goals in one season. But football was not Hegazi's sole forte -- he excelled on the track too. He won the quarter- and half-mile races in the Egyptian National Championships four years in a row.

Setting an example that would later become a trend, in the summer of 1911 Hegazi came to London to study engineering at the University College London.

He found his way fast, however, into the football arena, and was whisked up by England's own Dulwich Hamlet Football Club.

Hegazi's first game for the club was against the Hamlet's oldest rivals, West Norwood. In a pre- season friendly at Champion Hill on 2 September 1911 -- the curtain raiser to the 1911/12 season -- Hegazi was summed up by the press as, "quite a good player, with a lightning drive".

He was, however, said to have a tendency towards distraction, but the shortcoming did little to keep the crowds from warming to this enigmatic Egyptian youngster.

He proved himself fast, scoring virtually one goal a game. After the first league match, one local reporter confidently predicted that Hegazi "should make quite a name for himself in English amateur football".

That name was made much sooner than the critics had expected. Hegazi put his stamp on the Isthmian League competition straight away, lighting up matches with his flair.

"He is the shining light of the game," said the South London Press(SLP) of Hegazi's first Dulwich Hamlet v Nunhead Derby on 23 September 1911. "The Egyptian gave a splendid exhibition, the way he makes openings for himself and his wing men shows much brain work."

It was that footballing intellect that put him one step ahead of many other players. As wise as a serpent, he was able, in a flash, to produce a quick swivel, followed by a quicksilver pace that left his opponent clutching at straws. Or execute the perfect pass to a teammate in an instant.

It was the 6-0 demolition of West Norwood -- in which Hegazi scored two goals -- that really distinguished the personal league he was in.

"The back division seemed powerless to deal with the Egyptian Hegazi, who gave the front line plenty of chances," SLP wrote on 27 Oct 1911. "Hegazi began to display his wonderful command of the ball almost from the outset."

His appeal to other clubs grew, and Fulham -- in the second Division of the Football League -- invited him to play in a league match with Stockport County at Craven Cottage.

His arrival in Fulham aroused much curiosity -- everyone sceptical about the capabilities of this young Egyptian who seemed to have emerged from nowhere. But after a welcome reception, Hegazi made a point to right away prove his control of the ball. He opened up scoring that day after just 15 minutes of play.

The battle over possession of Hegazi became one of unmatched intensity, with many teams scrambling to get him on their own.

"I was in a difficulty," Hegazi told the press at the time. "For I wanted to play very much in League football, and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet who have been very good to me. I have decided to play for the Hamlet. I am sorry if Fulham are disappointed"

Hegazi played, and toured, and scored, and won. He took the team to numerous titles as a professional globetrotter, and was offered a renewal of his contract. Like other colleagues in later years, Hegazi made the decision one day to return home. His final months with Dulwich Hamlet were the season prior to the First World War. By then he had switched to the inside right position, becoming a critical part of the Hamlet clan. A typical account of how his great skill and perception could turn a match appeared in the 17 October 1913 edition of the South London Press: "Hegazi opened the scoring in characteristic style. He received a pass from Davis, turned round instantly, and shooting like a flash, the ball was in the net before Robertson was aware of it."

In the summer of 1914, Hegazi was markedly absent. Back in Egypt, he ultimately ended up at Sekka -- the oldest Egyptian club. He then left and played for Ahli between 1915-1923, and then on to Zamalek. It was his hopping between Ahli and Zamalek that is alleged to have been a catalyst in the Ahli-Zamalek rivalry -- each team vowing to win the best player onto their side. The rivalry has not only sustained, but also intensified. As has Hegazi's legendary reputation as the backbone of Egyptian football.

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