Amr Zaki began the 2008/09 season as a little fish in the ocean that is the English Premier League. Seven rounds into the campaign, however, the player Wigan Athletic have on a season-long loan from Zamalek has established himself as one of the competition's most fearsome predators.
Powerful, pacy and relentless, the Egyptian is the competition's joint-leading marksman, alongside Jermain and Defoe and Fernando Torres. Riding a wave of confidence, Zaki spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about life in the Premier League, and his country's chances at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 and of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
FIFA.com: Amr, ten years ago you were at Mansoura in the Egyptian second tier. Did you ever envisage playing in the English Premier League?
Amr Zaki: Well, I used to wear the jersey of some of the players I compete against today while watching them on TV and cheering for their clubs, but looking back at my start, I think I made quick and tremendous progress. I actually started with a third division side in Egypt, El Merrikh, before I joined the Mansoura in my hometown. I managed to make my first team appearance for their senior team when I was only 16 years old and a few years later, I joined ENPPI in the Egyptian top flight for a record fee at the time. Looking back at such a journey, I thank God for helping me climb up the stairs of football so fast, and while I am still only 25 that's what makes me full of confidence when I rub shoulders with superstars every Saturday.
You didn't mention your spell at Lokomotiv Moscow.
I have to admit I'm not very proud of this experience. After Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations at home in 2006, ENPPI, put me up for sale. The winter transfer window was already closed by that time in Europe, with the exception of Russia. Lokomotiv Moscow made a good offer. However, I only stayed there for three months and did not play a single game, mainly because I was injured most of the time and suffered from home sickness and the terrible climate.
But you've managed to overcome these obstacles at Wigan.
It is very different this time: I am now at the place I dreamt of being since I was a kid. I knew what was waiting for me and I am getting all the support I need. The club are doing their best to make me feel comfortable, and they even helped me bring my family to England to make me feel at home. I cannot even begin to describe how grateful I am to the Wigan fans, who have been just fantastic.
Do you think if you had moved to a bigger club you could have made an even greater impact in the Premier League?
Wigan may be a small city but they are definitely not a small team. We play some of the best football in the league and we have superstar players like (Emile) Heskey and (Antonio) Valencia. Even in the games we lost this season, we were the better side but were just unlucky.
So you're committed to Wigan, despite reports suggesting you would like to move to one of the Premier League's 'big four' in January?
All my efforts now are focused towards helping Wigan win matches and scoring goals for them. This is the least I can do for the team and for my manager Steve Bruce, who insisted on signing me after one of he longest transfers negotiations in modern football. He always believed in me, and now it is my turn now to pay him back and meet the expectations of the Wigan fans.
Turning to the national team, Egypt have not qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1990. Do you believe you can qualify for South Africa 2010?
Thinking any differently would be kind of madness after winning the Africa Cup of Nations twice in a row. There is no doubt that we are the best African team at this stage. And we as players have the confidence to make it all the way to South Africa. The next phase of the qualifiers will be very tough with only the elite teams competing. But this is when we're at our best, playing against the big names.
Are there any teams you would like to avoid in the third phase of African Zone qualifying?
I fear no-one. It should be the other way round, other teams fearing playing against us. There are at least eight to 12 teams in Africa that deserve to play in the FIFA World Cup finals, but only the fittest will survive.
How do you rate Egypt's chances at the FIFA Confederations Cup next year?
It will simply be thrilling to play against Brazil, Italy or Spain. But as the champions of Africa people will expect us to play for victory, and I guess this is what we should do.
You scored for Egypt with your first touch after replacing Mido in the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final against Senegal in 2006. Was this your greatest moment for your country?
Many people believe so, although they tend to forget that I played every game in this tournament and performed even better in other matches.
It's an exciting time in Egyptian football. How do you feel about Egypt hosting the FIFA U-20 World Cup next year?
I have very fond memories of this competition because we won the African title in 2003 in Burkina Faso, and I was part of that team. We went on to reach the last 16 of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Dubai, where we lost to Argentina. Our coach at the time was Hassan Shehata, who later used the same plyaers to win the Cup of Nations title in 2006 and 2008. I think people are really elated in Egypt that such an event is coming home. It will be a huge festival of football like it was at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006.
You played the lead role in an Egyptian movie with Mohamed Shawky earlier this year. Does this mean you are considering a career change?
No way! We did it during the summer break for the fun of it. It was an interesting idea and the film is now in the cinemas. I just hope it will be successful.
While helping Wigan and Egypt remain among your objectives, what are your personal goals?
I think it is time I won the African Footballer of the Year award. No Egyptian player has won this title for over 25 years, which is disappointing. Many people have told me that I am the top contender. This sounds logical because it really has to be an Egyptian this year after we managed to hold on to our continental title, which was the biggest football event in Africa this year. If there is anybody who can compete with me for such a title, it is Mohamed Aboutrika - he has helped Al Ahly dominate club football in Africa.
What about players from other countries?
I have all the respect for stars like Kanoute, Keita, Drogba and others, but I am convinced that 2008 was Egypt's year. We could not have done any better to deserve such a title.