The future of Essam El-Hadari and his club Ahli remain uncertain following the goalkeeper's shock departure, Inas Mazhar
weeks in Ghana, Essam El-Hadari, Egypt's and Ahli's top goalkeeper, was the talk of the town after helping lead the national team to its sixth Africa Nations Cup.
Shortly after the Pharaohs return, he continued to be in the spotlight but this time not for being the protector of Egypt's net but a runaway. No sooner had El-Hadari led Ahli to a 1-0 victory over Masri in a national league match on Wednesday night than the following morning, the nation woke up to discover that the player had fled, unannounced, to Switzerland, to club FC Sion. Ironically, the national team was feted in Cairo Stadium for their triumphant African victory on the same day of El-Hadari's shocking departure.
So far, the issue is ongoing and making front page headlines in all Egyptian daily newspapers as Ahli, selected the African club of the century, breathes fire over El-Hadari's attempts to engineer the move on his own.
El-Hadari remains in Switzerland with his new club Sion, eighth in the Swiss league. His name is listed among the team's list of players on all local and international sports websites. In Switzerland he wears the No 1 jersey and he joins the team's two Swiss goalkeepers David Gonzales and Nicolas Beney.
Since his arrival in Switzerland, El-Hadari has trained with his new team, his pictures and news have decorated the club's official website and visitors to the site can see a TV interview with the goalkeeper.
Shortly after the national team returned from Ghana on 10 February, Sion made a $400,000 bid for El-Hadari but his Ahli club refused to either let the player leave before his contract expires in 2010 or to hold any sort of negotiations with the Swiss side.
According to Ahli officials the matter was closed. El-Hadari was not for sale and the club needed his services.
But El-Hadari now insists he wanted to go through the experience of being a professional player.
"Iam already 35 and this is the last chance for me to turn pro," El-Hadari said from Switzerland via the local radio station Youth and Sports. "It has been my dream and I want to fulfill it. Iam not running after money or fame because I was being paid well by Ahli. I want my CV and history to say I played outside Egypt and to join the list of Egypt's European-based players.
"I had no other choice but to leave. I asked (Ahli president) Hassan Hamdi for permission to accept the offer but I was turned down. So I had to leave. They forced me to."
Africa's best goalkeeper apologised to Egyptian fans and Ahli supporters in particular for leaving the club the way he did. He asked them to forgive him and wish him the best of luck as he has served both the national team and Ahli for the past 12 years in which he won two Nations Cup titles with the national team and more than 10 domestic and African crowns with Ahli in just the last three years.
El-Hadari claimed in his interview that Sion had offered more than $1 million and that negotiations had started with him in Ghana when a Swiss delegation visited the West African country and spoke with Egyptian federation officials. He said the matter was postponed until after the Nations Cup tournament after which the Swiss delegation was asked to send an official offer to Ahli.
The goalkeeper also announced that playing at FC Sion was only a step before moving to another bigger European club. Though he refused to name the club, rumours are linking the player to English clubs Arsenal or Chelsea. Such a move, should it occur, is expected to take place in six months time, after the end of the season.
El-Hadari's departure has left Ahli vulnerable. With only two goalkeepers remaining in the squad, Ahli's campaign in both the national league competition and the African Champions League competition is under threat. The goalkeepers, Amir Abdel-Hamid and Ahmed Adel Abdel-Moneim, have hardly played in almost two years, sitting on the bench as El-Hadari's substitutes. Abdel-Hamid announced he was ready for the challenge of filling the position of El-Hadari, voted the African continent's best goalkeeper for the second ACN championship in a row.
While Ahli has complained to both FIFA and the Swiss Football Federation, it is reportedly trying to woo its former goalkeeper Sherif Ekrami from Feynoord. However, Ahli will not be able to add a third name to either the national league or the African Champions League competition.
El-Hadari left believing he was entitled to transfer to any other club according to a FIFA rule which permits players who are over the age of 28 and have been with a club for six years to buy out the remainder of their contract. El-Hadari spent 12 years in Ahli and while there is such an article in FIFA it can only come into force if both clubs are in agreement over the deal. And Ahli is not.
Former Ahli captain and the current football coordinator Hadi Khashaba said the player was wrong to leave the club the way he did and tarnish the history he had achieved with the club. "If he had wanted to travel and play abroad he could have done this officially, through the right channels. There was an offer but it wasn't suitable for the best goalkeeper in Africa. "Thats why it was turned down. He could have waited for negotiations but he wasn't patient enough. Therefore, he should be ready for the consequences because Ahli club is a big institution based on values and principles more than anything else," Khashaba said.
Board member Khaled Mortagi stresses that the club will not let El-Hadari leave. "El-Hadari's contract continues until 2010 which means two and a half years to go and we are sticking to that. It is our right. We have contacted both FIFA and the Swiss federation claiming so. There is nothing wrong in our contract; it is correct," Mortagi said.
"The goalkeeper has put us in a critical situation. Now, we have to continue the season with only two goalkeepers."
Adli El-Qei'i, the club's marketing manager, denied statements by El-Hadari and the Swiss side claiming there were negotiations towards raising the offer to over $1 million. He said Ahli has reserved the right in bringing El-Hadari back even if the club has to take legal action.
"It's not true," El-Qei'i said. "The only offer we received was a fax mentioning $400,000 and it is not true that they increased the offer."
FC Sion believed they had reached an agreement with the goalkeeper, and they told BBC Sport that they were ready to return to the negotiations with Ahli to complete the deal.
El-Hadari is said to have contacted members of the Egyptian national team, especially coach Hassan Shehata, calling on them to support him in the media and persuade Ahli to solve the matter. El-Hadari reminded Shehata of how former national team coach Mahmoud El-Gohari had put pressure on the EFA when defender Ibrahim Said fled to Belgium the day before an Ahli-zamalek derby.
The EFA is taking Ahli's side and has told Sion that according to the contract between the player and Ahli, El-Hadari belongs to the Egyptian side and therefore Ahli cannot send to FIFA the player's international registration card that would allow him to play for Sion.
The question now and one which has been asked of El-Hadari is what will happen if the attempt to play for FC Sion fails and he is forced to return? In the radio interview, El-Hadari spoke emotionally about him being one of Ahli's sons but he was unable to give an answer. The only certainty is that if he does indeed return, things will not be the same anymore.