Former Egypt international Sayed Abdel Hafeez was known as the Egyptian Figo when he plied his trade for Cairo-based giants Al Ahly. caught up with the midfield legend, now director of football at his former club, to talk about the enforced break in the league competition, upcoming transfer deals at Al Ahly and the standards in Egypt’s senior and Under-23 teams.

When the Egyptian league was interrupted to allow the national U-23 team to compete at the ongoing CAF U-23 Championship, a competition that doubled as the qualifiers for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament 2012, opinion was divided as to whether it would help or hinder some of the top sides. More than one analyst speculated that the enforced stoppage would benefit Al Ahly, affording them as it did the opportunity to regroup in their bid for another league title.

Abdel Hafeez, however, sees things differently: “Before the stoppage, the players had reached a very good technical and physical level, but the break dragged on for more than 35 days, which is a very long time in football. The players got out of shape and lost their focus. There’s no league in the world where play stops for the Olympic team. In the end we tried to get some positives out of it and deal with it as best we could. We played a few friendlies and worked with players coming back from injury, like Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Naguib, who took a long time to recover. Generally speaking, though, the negatives outweighed the positives.”

Al Ahly’s first match after the resumption will be against long-time rivals Ismaili. Contests between the two sides have always been hard-fought and the former will need to maintain the quality they displayed during their friendly games to prevail. With this encounter in mind, we asked the former Al Ahly playmaker if he was happy with his side's standard of play?

“You can’t base your judgment on friendlies because they’re a different case,” he explained. “They are about technical and tactical objectives and for trying players out in different positions and testing their skill set. The result doesn’t really interest us. Win or lose it’s only a friendly so it doesn’t help much in assessing the level of your team. The real test is in the league. We’ve prepared well and the task now is to play better than we did before the break and get the results our quality of players warrant.”

When asked about media reports suggesting the club were thinking of moving on certain players, the director of football was quick to dismiss them as mere rumours and a regrettable source of distraction for the players. “Just because you miss a few games doesn’t mean the club can do without you. You might be out of contention one moment and the next find yourself playing a crucial role in the side, like Sherif Abdel Fadil. Injuries happen and you could get a game. The players must always be ready.”

Abdel Hafeez was adamant that this applied to all the players, even their Brazilian striker Fabio Junior. “Al Ahly have a comprehensive system in place for rotating its players over a large number of matches. A game or two here and there means nothing.”

The 34-year-old was equally tight-lipped when asked which players Al Ahly were planning on signing during the winter break. “It’s not as easy as that. All the directors have to get together in committee to discuss the matter and propose names and alternatives. It’s a group decision and it has to be run past the club’s head of marketing Adli Al Qei’i. So far we don’t have any names in mind so any talk about signing players or letting them go in January is premature.”

Weak is an overstatement
Abdel Hafeez’s response may come as a disappointment to Al Ahly’s fans, many of whom have concerns about the goalkeeping slot, perhaps the side’s only obvious weakness. This is a major issue at a club whose goalkeepers have traditionally been of the highest calibre. Not surprisingly perhaps, Abdel Hafeez begged to differ.

“Let’s be clear about this: we’re not weak in any position,” he said firmly. “There will always be comparisons, but at the end of the day Al Ahly have three top-class goalkeepers, and if you measure them against who’s out there, they’re the best.”

When Al Ahly play well, it has a definite and recognizable effect on the national side.

Sayed Abdel Hafeez, Al Ahly director of football

However, Abdel Hafeez did little to hide his admiration for Al Masry’s young shot-stopper Ahmed El Shenawy. Having taken part in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia this year, El Shenawy is currently representing Egypt at the CAF U-23 Championship in Morocco.

“El Shenawy is a very good player indeed,” he said, “but Al Ahly respect the rules and any approach to the player would be made through official channels. We have a lot of admiration for Al Masry, but to date we haven’t put in a request and there have been no negotiations about him.”

But the goalkeeper question is not the only criticism facing the side. Al Ahly’s technical staff have come under fire for not giving young players a chance, sticking with aging stars like Mohamed Aboutrika despite the side’s declining fortunes.

“Just having Aboutrika on the pitch gives the whole side a feeling of confidence,” the director of football insisted. “Performance isn’t just measured in goals scored. He’s an important player, who has given a lot to the club and there’s more to come from him.”

To what extent, then, do Al Ahly aim to use their young academy players in the first teams of the future? “Al Ahly have a very good youth academy staffed by some of the best coaches out there. Recently about 22 players have graduated from the academy into the youth squads, and that’s an important step, because their next goal will be the first team. But these things take time. We need three or four years to get players to the requisite standard.  Even so it’s very important to us and we’ll be giving these youngsters all the help they need.”

As for the national teams, Abdel Hafeez views the U-23 side’s teething problems as somewhat inevitable. “They had a slow start but the Olympic team have been playing great football in the qualifiers. This always happens in football. They had the usual problems of not having played together a lot. They should have longer to gel, but they still forged an understanding pretty quickly and now they’ve got to get to the Olympics. If they want to make it, however, they’ll have to get past a big stumbling block in Morocco, but they have a good chance. They’re playing well and also for each other.”

Al Ahly's impact
For Abdel Hafeez, the current crisis in the senior national side is another matter altogether. “The first team rose to the top of the heap, but what goes up must come down. When we were African champions we should have been introducing new blood into the side. Our 2006 squad shouldn’t have been the same as our 2011 one. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, although a slight decline is only natural and I’m sure we’ll rise again. We must give Bob Bradley a proper chance and not judge him too soon, because he’ll need plenty of time to get things back on track.”

Asked whether Al Ahly’s fortunes have an impact on the national team’s, Abdel Hafeez replied: “The numbers tell you that they do. When Al Ahly are on top form and winning competitions at home and on the continent, then Egypt also win, and the reverse is also true. When Al Ahly play well, it has a definite and recognizable effect on the national side.”

Abdel Hafeez is one of the youngest men to have held the post of director of football at the venerable club, but it is a distinction he takes in stride. “We’ve got a professional mindset at Al Ahly. Because of the similarity in ages I’m friendly with all the players, and our families know each other. I’ll even eat with them some evenings. However, when they turn up late I’ll also discipline them. I’ve no problem with that at all. That’s the secret of Al Ahly’s success as an administration: we never confuse the issue. You have duties and obligations towards your club, and you had better fulfil those before you start talking about your rights.”

He is an ambitious man and in that respect a perfect fit with his club. So what targets do Al Ahly have their sights set on next? “We’re a club of cups and trophies,” Abdel Hafeez replied. “Our main aim is to start winning competitions again, especially next year’s Club World Cup. But that means we have to win the CAF Champions League first.”

Abdel Hafeez concluded our interview with an upbeat prediction for his club, saying: “When you have a really strong side you don’t fear any opponent, home or away. Al Ahly’s players are always at their best when they’re competing for something they feel is theirs. That’s the spirit of the red shirt. It’s something magical that sets us apart from our rivals. You don’t find that in every team.”