Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2004
Issue No. 676
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The Egyptian football gene

To every fruit-filled tree, there are roots. Nashwa Abdel-Tawab takes a look at Egypt's soccer families

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The Twins Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan; grandfather Yehya Imam, Father Hamada Imam and son Hazem Imam; the brothers Youssef
Around the world, for generations and in eras before us, it has been common- place for children to take over the family business. It seems, after all, like a natural thing to do, family businesses being part of the fabric of the growing up family environment.

Not all parents, however, are able to pass down the security of a family job to their children. When it comes to sports, and hence the "talent" element, no strategic grooming can guarantee a child's future success.

When it comes to football, it is a profession that relies solely on talent on the pitch, offering absolutely no place for "daddy" to back one up.

In soccer history worldwide it is rare to find relatives comprising the exclusive ranks of the national teams -- the exceptions being the Laudrup brothers in Denmark, the Nevilles in England and the De Boers in Holland.

In Egypt, however, the so-called land of history and civilisation, the case is quite unique. Across the span of centuries and civilisations, the river continues to run majestically through the lands, watering the soils and feeding the people, and the Pyramids, Sphinx and ancient temples continue to stand tall. The nation is unique in that way: its presence in history unparalleled elsewhere in the world. Perhaps that is why the people, figures reveal, are as unique as they are.

Talent in Egypt appears to spread across the span of family trees. And it is not one case to commemorate, but rather a dozen to numerate. The football gene in Egypt has been traced from grandfathers to fathers to sons; split among brothers, twins or not; shared among cousins, and even passed down to girls as well as boys.

The Emam Family is one example: Family of Egypt's greatest goalkeeper in the 1940s and 1950s, father of one of the greatest strikers in Egypt's history, and grandfather of Egypt's rising midfielding talent.

Yehia Emam was Egypt and Zamalek's international goalkeeper. He participated in the 1948 Olympic Games, and snatched ten League titles and four Egyptian Cup titles. Yehia gave birth to a kid of different talents, Hamada Emam, later known as the fox. He was one of the greatest strikers in Egypt's history, and also a Zamalek and national team player. Hamada snatched two league titles and three cups for Zamalek. He worked as a commentator and now holds the post of vice-president of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA).

Coming to the grandchild, Egypt's idol and another maestro on the pitch, always nicknamed as the magician, Hazem Emam, Zamalek's great midfielder. Hazem has 81 international caps in which he scored 15 goals. Like his ancestors, he was the first Egyptian and Arab footballer to play in the Italian Series A, playing for Udenise. He played for Egypt in four successive African Cups, playing 16 games, scoring twice and creating many chances for his mates. He snatched two titles for the national team, ten titles for Zamalek, and was crowned with numerous awards: the World Best Soccer Skills Pepsi Challenge Winner 2001, Egyptian Footballer of the Year 2003 (EFA), best player in Egyptian Super Cup 2000/ 2001, and best playmaker in African cup 1996 in South Africa. He was selected in best team of African Cup 2002.

Brothers in Egyptian football history have also had a presence. The twin brothers, Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan, are the most accomplished brothers in Egyptian soccer history. They are the most international capped Egyptian and African Players, both playing over 100 international caps for Egypt and consequently joining FIFA's exclusive Century Club (Hossam for 160 caps and Ibrahim, 125 caps).

They moved together from Ahli to Paok Saloniki of Greece, then to Neuchatel Xamax of Switzerland and finally made the historic move to Ahli's rival Zamalek, where they won the league in their first season. Hossam is the most titled player in Egyptian History (38 titles). Ibrahim is the second most titled in Egyptian history with 31 titles under his belt.

"Years ago, we dreamt of playing together, frightening rivals," Hossam recalls. "Me as a striker and Ibrahim as a defender. We can be everywhere on the pitch. With hard work from the streets, to the Helwan club, then to Ahli, and the national team, we did it," he recalls of their history.

Together with his twin Hossam, they won eight successive Egyptian leagues (1993/1994-2000/2001) seven titles in Ahli's jersey, and one title in Zamalek's trademark white top. Together with his twin Hossam, they reached and won two African Champion League Finals and hold the all time Egyptian and African record of African club cup titles, six.

One cannot talk about Egyptian football brothers without talking about the Youssef brothers: El-Sayed Youssef (Tersana Club), Ibrahim Youssef (Zamalek), and Ismail Youssef (Zamalek).

El-Sayed won the All Africa Games Gold Medal in 1987 and snatched the Egyptian Cup Title for Tersana in 1986. Ibrahim, most famous of the trio and Zamalek's star defender, took the title of best Egyptian footballer several times, best Libero in African cup 1984, second African footballer of the year by France Football 1984, third African footballer of the year by France Football 1985. With Egypt, he snatched the gold medal of the All-Africa Games in 1987, and the Bronze Medal of the Mediterranean Games in 1983. For Zamalek, he snatched a league, a cup, and two African champions league titles.

The youngest of the brothers, Ismail, looked up to his two brothers as idols.

"I had the talent but I learnt the discipline of the game implicitly from my brothers," he says. Ismail found himself as a coach as well as a midfielder. He was an assistant manager of Egyptian national youth team under-20. He qualified for the World Cup, won the African Cup of nations, and was an assistant coach to Zamalek. He played 325 matches for Zamalek in the Egyptian league and cup, snatching 13 titles. He played 97 international matches for the national team and participated in three African Nation Cups. He also partook in the 1990 World Cup.

The Yakkan family serves only to strengthen this Egyptian-talent theory.

Yakkan, the father, was a famous backright for Zamalek and the national team. Hesham, his brother, was a well- reputed defender for Zamalek and the national team, and his cousin, Ayman Mansour, was a talented midfielder, also for the club.

Away from Cairo and its suburbs, the Abu Greisha family established for itself the football gene reputation in Ismailia and Egypt as a whole. Ali Abu Greisha was the first discovered talent gene in the family. He was crowned third African footballer of the year by France Football in 1970, and eighth African footballer of the year by France Football in 1972. He was the top scorer of the Egyptian league in 1966/67 and African champions league in 1969. For Ismaili, he won a league title and an African champions league title. He then coached Ismaili for a while and took the AKA Golden Head.

Mohamed Salah Abu Greisha, a cousin, and another striker, won four of the six titles Ismaili clinched in its history. He was Egyptian League Top Scorer in 1995/1996, scoring 80 goals in the League and 14 Goals in the Cup. He played for the National Team in the 1992 Olympic Games and in the African Cup of Nations in 1992, 94 and 96

There are also, in the family, Mohamed Mohsen Abu Greisha and Salah, Sayed and Adel Abu Greisha -- all top- notch national players.

The list goes on.

Saleh Selim, arguably Egypt's most celebrated sports figure ever, was Ahli Club's president. Nicknamed "the maestro" for a combination of footballing skills, which most observers say bordered on genius, and for the way in which he marshalled his players on the pitch, he netted for Ahli and Egypt numerous Arab and African championships. Selim joined Ahli at 17 and won his first international cap at 20 in 1950. He remained an instrumental member of the Egyptian squad until his retirement in 1967.

Selim was one of the first Egyptian players to ply their trade in Europe, joining Austrian outfit Stum Graz in 1963 where he spent four years. He retired in 1967.

He won nine consecutive national cups with Ahli. In 1958 he broke all previous records when, in a single match he scored seven goals against Ismaili.

The player's links with the club were very much a family affair: Selim's father, Mohamed, was a leading member, as were his brothers, Abdel-Wahab, who died several years ago, and Tarek, who survives his brother, and is Ahli's football director. The three brothers played for the national team and Ahli. Selim passed away in 2003.

The list does not quite end there, with the passing of the talent gene seen to be spreading in the new generation of footballers; like teenager Sherif Ikrami following in his father's footsteps: His father was Ahli's and national team's famous goalkeeper. Sherif is the main goalkeeper of the U-20 team.

And of course, there are more.

The DNA mapping of the Egyptian football-talent gene is intricate, intense, and above all, elusive. No other nation in the world reflects the family football flair which is evident on the pitches of Egypt. Egyptian football, in a sense, is a brand name: a family one.

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