Death of 'The Engineer'
Rifaat El-Fanagili (1936-2004)
Click to view caption|
Twenty years ago, a poll was conducted to choose the best 10 players in the history of Egyptian football. The 50-member committee consisted of veteran players over 60 who could remember as far back as the 1930s when the sport began to take shape in the country. Rifaat El-Fanagili topped the list with 26 votes.
Experts agree that El-Fanagili, who died last week aged 68, was a total footballer, excelling in all aspects of the game. Probably the finest all- rounder of his generation, former sports columnist Naguib El-Mistikawi dubbed him "The Engineer". El-Fanagili combined physical fitness, extraordinary skills, as well as tactical awareness years before the emergence of modern football thinking. Excelling in creating space and sending tantalising passes, he produced more than 200 passes that resulted in goals for both his club Ahli and the national team.
While generations have produced remarkable performers -- Abdel-Karim Saqr, El-Dizwi, Saleh Selim, Reda and Yakan Hussein -- there is a plausible body of opinion which elevates El- Fanagili to a yet more exalted plane. It places him among the greatest players the country has seen since the introduction of the game in 1882 at the hands of the British occupation.
What made El-Fanagili special was his mastery of virtually every aspect of the game, commanding presence, as well as delicacy of touch. He was also an innovator, the first Egyptian to press the opponent in his own side of the field.
Born in 1936 in the Mediterranean city of Damietta in northern Egypt, El-Fanagili, like all Egyptian star footballers, played in the alleyways of his coastal city. His talent shone early in a spot the boys called "the football square".
When El-Fanagili was nine, his father went blind in mourning for his daughter's death. With his father spending all his money on treatment, El-Fanagili had to leave school and learn a craft to help support the family. He became apprenticed to a carpenter, earning a pound a week. Thus, the skilful youngster, who would thunder across the nation's football fields in years to come, found himself making chairs, beds and desks and, when time permitted, playing football. The workshop owner, himself a football fan, strongly encouraged El-Fanagili's talent. He found time to train, and joined the Damietta Municipality Club, playing on its junior team for two years. Then he moved to Al-Saha Al-Shabiyya (the community court) team, and from there to the Ittihad Club in Damietta. He was 14 at the time.
On one occasion, he replaced the first team's right half who had fallen ill. The spectators were astounded to see the young player perform at once as both striker and defender. It was El- Fanagili's first step into the limelight. His fancy footwork caught the eye of giant club Ahli. He headed south and left for Cairo. He played several friendlies with Ahli, then joined Ittihad Suez Club, scoring a goal to help win a match against Misri. From there it was on to the Mediterranean Games in France and again in Bulgaria. He was "in dire need of every penny", sending almost all his monthly pay to his family in Damietta.
In 1960 during the Rome Olympic Games, El- Fanagili was chosen the best defender in the tournament. The same year he was chosen best player in Egypt, a title he held for three consecutive years. In the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Egyptian team finished fourth.
Due to the comprehensive nature of the El- Fanagili's talents, he was a prime target for European clubs, receiving several offers to go professional. The most tempting perhaps was the Italian offer: 100,000 sterling and a monthly salary of 10,000 sterling. He gave up the idea after both Ahli and an adamant Field Marshall Abdel- Hakim Amer, head of the Football Federation, refused. "Your future in your country is secure," Amer told him.
Retiring in 1970, El-Fanagili returned to Damietta and opened a car rental office. He trained the Damietta football team for a couple of years then left because of inter-club problems.
Following his death last week, the governor of Damietta named one of the city's streets after him.
El-Fanagili helped Ahli to six national league titles, four Cup victories, and the Cup of the United Arab Republic once. Playing a key role in the national team, he was on the team who won the African Cup of Nations in Sudan in 1957 and 1959.
He scored 10 goals against Ahli's arch foe Zamalek.
By Mohamed El-Sayed