Ahmed Hossam: Perpetual prodigy
Play in six of the world's top football teams over six years and you get not only a higher price tag but a controversial reputation
Profile by Inas Mazhar
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Mido with his 7-month-old baby; with his parents as a child; and in a friendly game between Egypt and Senegal in which he scored the winner
Yesterday Ahmed Hossam (or Mido, as he is better known) turned 22. Already he has it all: fame, fortune, even a family of his own. The richest Egyptian footballer in the history of the game, he has played in some of the highest-ranking clubs in Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, Spain and now England. Olympic idol, Mido is equally universal heartthrob -- and, yes, at the age of 22, already the father of a seven-month-old boy named Ali, a fact to which the thousands of teenage girls in love with him have not been able to reconcile themselves.
The youngest of three siblings -- Mido's brother Tamer (33) is a police officer, his sister Dina (26) an oil company employee and surgeon's wife -- he was born in Nasr City on 23 February 1983 to a football player and, in the period 1977- 2000, the Zamalek, then Heliopolis team coach, Hossam Wasfi.
Like his elder brother and, well, the vast majority of Egyptians, he grew up loving -- and, naturally enough, also playing -- the game. He would accompany Wasfi to the pitch and watch. No sooner had he started playing than he demonstrated exceptional talent, and by the age of nine the promise he showed was very widely acknowledged. His father must have seen the makings of a professional career; he decided to steer Mido's life course in that direction, anyway, and immediately he took him to the then newly created, highly exclusive Nasr City sports school, which admitted only the most outstanding candidates in six sports. But since he was four years younger than the minimum age, the child's application was rejected.
"It was only thanks to the intervention of Dr Amr Abul-Magd, the well-known football expert," Wasfi recalls, "that Mido was allowed to join in the end. Dr Abul-Magd had seen him play at the Zamalek Club and predicted his future. From then on he became the family prodigy -- and our top priority. It was a boarding school, and since he had never been separated from us his mother and I had to go and visit every day. He was so incredibly young. My wife would help him do his homework while I sat around and spoke to him, then we'd both indulge him until he fell asleep while we were still in the school lounge -- I would carry him to his room and put him to bed, every night. We've been giving him this kind of attention for years -- since he first joined that school, in fact. Mido has taken more of our time than either his brother or sister, who would sometimes be so angry."
While still at school, Mido continued playing in the junior team of the Zamalek club until, at 16, he became the youngest forward ever to join the club's first team; he was also a member of the national junior and Olympic teams. But his career did not start until 1998 when, in the course of a friendly match between the Olympic team and a French team, a scout from the Belgian club Ghent spotted Mido and offered him a tempting contract -- his first professional opportunity.
"I was only 16," Mido explains. "Just like any footballer, turning pro in Europe was a dream I hadn't dared contemplate; I never thought it could come true. But then it did -- I was ecstatic. I felt young and inexperienced and dependent on my parents -- somehow I was always dependent on my parents -- so I left it all to my father, he would determine what would happen in my future. Still," Mido concedes, "I couldn't really bear the thought of living abroad all by myself."
For his first six months in Belgium, as a result, Mido's father kept him company. "It was tougher on me than him," Wasfi remembers with a smile. "As a typical Oriental man, I had done nothing in the house: that was left to my mother, then my wife. And here I was in a big villa in Belgium, less domesticated than you could possibly imagine, doing all the chores myself. I was both mother and father to Mido: I cooked for him, washed his clothes, and drew up his schedule as well. Finally I could no longer endure, my other children were complaining of my absence, I had business to look after in Egypt -- I had quit coaching and become a player's agent -- and so we started to take turns living with Mido, my wife and I."
When it was the mother's turn, Mido's siblings, understandably perhaps, complained even more intensely. "They loved Mido so much," she explains, "but they too needed their parents, their mother especially, and they missed her, they wanted her there. Still," she concludes, "we managed somehow."
The next -- lucrative -- offer came in 2000, prompting a move to Amsterdam's Ajax, where Mido played perhaps his best football ever for a year and a half -- until the club's celebrated head coach, Ronald Koeman, having placed him on the reserve for the foreseeable future, handed him a reprieve; the club stated that the decision was taken after comments made by the 19-year-old Mido following a Champions League game against the English club Arsenal. By then the Netherlands' top scorer -- he had helped Ajax win three major titles in a year, yet he spent a significant portion of the season on the bench due to disputes with Koeman -- Mido was at last relegated to the club's junior team by way of punishment. A stellar presence on the European football scene, Koeman complained, the young sportsman had not been sufficiently absorbed in training and had the wrong attitude, failing to show up for meetings with sponsors. Mido made a public apology and was duly recalled to the first team, but problems with Koeman and the management soon led him to Spain's Celta Vigo, to which, in 2002, Ajax loaned him in a $250,000 deal. Notwithstanding all these complications, in the same year the African Football Confederation conferred on him the prestigious title of African Young Player of the Year.
Still unable to look after himself -- perpetually lonely and disorganised -- the forward needed company more than ever, but having been recalled to Cairo by her other two children yet another time, his mother decided that staying with him was no longer viable. She made what she calls "a bold decision" -- Mido was to marry his girlfriend, the 17-year-old Youssra. "They were in love and spent hours on the phone -- on a daily basis. It was getting very expensive, I thought; once, I remember, Mido's phone bill was 6,000 euros. So I told him you might as well marry her and have her with you all the time," Wasfi recounts, laughing. The mother also thought -- rightly -- that marriage would protect her son from romantic overindulgence in an open society where he was famous; his health, and hence his future, was at stake. An extravagant wedding took place in Cairo later in 2002, and the couple has lived happily ever since. The birth of Ali has only made them happier.
To watch Mido entertain his seven-month-old companion -- Ali seems to take after his father already -- is a sight to behold. Mido's childlike abandon makes them look like two kids playing -- a deeply heart-warming image.
At Celta the Young Pharaoh joined the South African Benni McCarthy in the front line, and it took him exactly 19 minutes to make his presence felt at his Spanish debut -- he scored the equaliser, facilitating a final score of two-one (McCarthy scored Celta's second goal). By mid- 2003 he was playing for Marseille, in France -- another difficult period beset by problems with the management -- where, charging alongside Didier Drogba, he scored seven goals in 17 matches before sealing a $4-million dollar deal with the Italian Serie A Roma.
"I had started the French season well but when I came back from the 2004 African Cup of Nations where I played for Egypt there had been a change of coach," Mido subsequently stated. "After that, I didn't even make it to the bench. I knew it would be better to move to Italy, particularly looking at the kind of striker Italian football was lacking." With a five-year contract, Mido hoped to achieve some degree of stability, the lack of which had upset him. "I really wanted to succeed there," he pleads. "Roma is a hugely prestigious club..." With coach Luigi Del Neri favouring Vincenzo Montella, Antonio Cassano and Marco Delvecchio for attacks, however, Mido hardly featured at all. Unhappy with his stint in Rome, he was soon eager to move to the English premiership -- an ambition realised only a month ago when he was loaned to Tottenham for 18 months, gracing his debut (which ended the team's run of five matches without victory) with two goals.
Tottenham fans gave Mido a cheering welcome -- more than enough compensation for Italy. "When I first stepped on the pitch everyone was chanting 'Mido'," he recalls. "I was very glad. Both management and players were very friendly, too, and it made me feel at home. I'm happy to be playing in England, and I'm glad I decided to move to Tottenham," he goes on. "It's a big club."
The controversy surrounding Mido was not merely a function of disputes with coaches. For the last three years, while moving from one European club to the next, he solicited much criticism from the Egyptian media -- he did not show enough commitment to the national team, it was frequently said. More recently the child prodigy of Egyptian football repented for this sin.
Last year, while Italian head coach Marco Tardelli led the national team, Mido, claiming injury, failed to make an appearance at some of Egypt's most crucial matches in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup. It later transpired that he had avoided medical check-ups despite being in Cairo when they took place. Tardelli, shocked and angered, asked the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to suspend him. The EFA later announced that the then Italy-based player was making illogical excuses. A member of Egypt's 25-man squad, set up in anticipation of the national team's Group Three clash with Cameroon, Mido would have been suspended for not attending had Marseille not testified in his favour to the EFA: the player, the French said, was suffering from a groin injury. A mere 24 hours before the Cameroon tie, however, Mido was seen playing in a friendly match for Marseille -- something that upset Egyptian fans, officials and the media alike.
The 35,000 supporters who crowded the Arab Contractors Stadium for the World Cup qualifier denounced Mido in no ambivalent terms, requesting that he should never again play for the national team -- an incident highlighted by media coverage of the match, in the course of which some went so far as to describe Mido as a traitor. The forward has since become the enfant terrible of Egyptian football, and is widely blamed for Egyptian failures since the 2004 African Cup of Nations. A public apology made in the course of a press conference held in Cairo was preceded by several repentant media statements. Mido asserted that he has matured as a person, not only as a footballer. "My football too has ripened," he said. "I learned a lot from playing at the highest levels in European clubs" -- which learning, he implied, he was ready to place at the disposal of the national team.
"You live and learn -- the hard way" is Mido's argument; he believes he has paid for his mistakes. "I was very young, I am still young. But if I were to go back in time three years I would react differently to the problems I faced, especially the Ajax coach Koeman. But I was only 16 when I left Egypt to seek my football fortune in Europe. My family supported me, of course. But sometimes I was left to myself, and that's when I made mistakes -- in the absence of guidance from an older player like my father." He is determined to wipe out the image of the enfant terrible. "I've changed," he insists, "I'm no longer the way I used to be. I'm now a father and I want my son to be proud of me. And so I'm starting over, you could say I'm a new Mido altogether -- reconciled with EFA officials, as well as fans and the media. I'm glad they've given me another chance, and I'm not going to ruin it. It's also a new start for me in England, where I hope to do something. Today Mido is only looking to the future," he concluded, "to a better future."