Egypt midfielder Ahmed Hassan set a new international appearance record for men’s football in February when he represented his country for the 179th time. FIFA World met up with the durable Egyptian to discuss his career, the recent tragedy in Port Said and the future of Egyptian football.
FIFA World: Congratulations on becoming the world’s most-capped player. How have you managed to maintain your form and fitness over the years?
Ahmed Hassan: Let me first say that I’m very proud of this record, not just for myself but for all of my countrymen, because it’s a great achievement for an Egyptian to be the world’s most-capped player. It wasn’t easy at all to reach this many caps and it took a lot of effort and perseverance in the face of many challenges. In fact, I never thought about winning so many caps when I set out on my football career. My dream was just to be a good footballer and play for Egypt. I was called up to the national team at 19 and I always did my best to be available for selection. As the years passed, especially over the last three years, people drew my attention to the fact that I could become the most-capped player in the world, so it became one of my targets. In a way, I was even quite late in accomplishing it because I picked up a serious knee injury in 2010. Fortunately, however, I managed to recover quickly and finally break the record.
You’ve known success and failure with Egypt, winning three consecutive CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles but failing to qualify, as title-holders, for the 2012 edition. How do you see the future of the team?
We’ve lived through one of the best eras in Egyptian football and it is only natural for any team that has done so well for so many years to go through a rough patch. After being on top for all those years, we simply underestimated our opponents, but we have learnt our lesson well and we have learnt it the hard way. Whoever is in charge of the team in the upcoming period has a very tough job ahead of them, especially after the recent decision to cancel the league and the overall instability of the country. It’s not going to be easy.
On the night you broke the caps record, you spoke a great deal about Egypt’s instability and the mixed emotions of breaking the record so soon after February’s Port Said stadium tragedy. How did the tragedy affect you personally?
It touched all of us in the football community. It’s depressing to see the sport that everybody loves become a source of such sadness but, ultimately, what happened was a result of fanaticism. I have to say that the media also played a large role by stirring up the fans’ aggression instead of attempting to calm things down. I’d like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to the families of all the fans who passed away and I hope that this is the last tragedy, and that football returns to its role as a form of entertainment and source of happiness for all Egyptians.
You’ve played in Egypt, Turkey and Belgium. What was your view of the fan culture in these countries? Did you notice differences between them?
Nowadays in Egypt all the big teams like Al-Ahly, Zamalek, Ismaily and Al-Masry have their own groups of “ultras”, which is a great thing if they stick to supporting their teams within the reasonable and ethical limits. But once it crosses the line and turns aggressive or becomes a vehicle for something completely beyond football then it becomes unacceptable and can lead to disasters. All over the world, ultras support their clubs using organised cheering which can be very entertaining and this is what we as players like to see in the stands, but if they cause violence in the stadiums then no, we cannot tolerate that.
Following the events in Port Said, many players even announced their retirement from the game. How long will it take Egyptian football to recover from the tragedy?
It is not just about football. The whole country is currently suffering from a lack of ethics, as well as a general lack of security, and this is causing problems in all facets of life. It is going to take some time to recover. There is no doubt that football will bounce back but the whole country has to make it out of this dark tunnel. Stability will only return when all members of the community, whether they be players, fans, referees, journalists or security staff, recognise their role, stick to it and respect the role of others.
I’ll retire only when I feel that I cannot or do not want to play football anymore. At that point, I’ll set some new goals for myself.
Do you agree with the widely held belief in Egypt that last year’s political unrest contributed to the ailing fortunes of Egyptian football?
It has definitely been a factor, but it’s not the main reason. We’re all part of this country and anything that goes on affects us, so naturally our concentration levels drop and we cannot remain focused when such turmoil is happening at home. On top of that there’s the fact that we couldn’t play for a very long time with the league being suspended for almost four months. But, again, I don’t believe that was the only reason. We also got over-confident and just thought it was going to be easy to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. By the time we’d realised our mistake, after the first two matches against Sierra Leone and Niger, it was already too late.
You’re a huge idol in Egypt – have you ever considered getting involved in politics?
No, I don’t want to get involved in politics. I’m just a footballer and I’d like to stick to that. I’ve actually been asked to stand as a candidate for the parliamentary elections but I refused point blank. I’ve been contacted by a few people seeking my endorsement but I refused to get involved because I don’t want to take any political sides and I don’t want to influence people’s choices in any way. I believe people should choose who they vote for based on the candidates’ own work not because a famous star told them who to vote for.
Egypt are now coached by Bob Bradley, whose USA team eliminated Egypt from the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009. What is your impression of him so far? Is his style different from an Egyptian coach?
I don’t believe in classifying coaches or anybody else for that matter based on where they come from. Regardless of whether he is an Egyptian or an American, I think every coach wants his team to do well for his own sake, since it’s his reputation that is on the line. Bradley is a great coach and he has a vision. It is an extremely tough job to take on the Egyptian national team at this time and I sympathise with him, but he has been trying out new players and new strategies, which is a good thing for the team and for the future of Egyptian football.
What are Egypt’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil?
It’s going to be tough. In the current situation, it’s hard for players to stay in shape and find opportunities to practise and play meaningful games but it is still possible, as long as we don’t repeat our mistakes from the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. We have to treat every game very seriously, from the first match on, and never underestimate any opponent.
You are one of the few players to have crossed the divide between Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and Zamalek. Can you tell us what that was like?
I dealt with the matter professionally. This is my job and those are the biggest two clubs in Egypt, if not Africa, so it has been an honour to play for both. I’ve never had any issues with Al-Ahly fans, so even after my move to Zamalek I was surprisingly never booed or treated with hostility by Al-Ahly’s fans, which really made it easy and demonstrated the respectful relationship I have with all Egyptian fans.
You are also one of the few Egyptians who have enjoyed a successful professional career in Europe. Why do you think other players have faced difficulties playing in Europe? What is the secret recipe for an Egyptian to have success in Europe?
Egyptian players unfortunately have not yet understood the meaning of professional football and that it is a job not just a game or a hobby. The mentality of Egyptian or Arab players in general is quite different, they still think of football as a pastime, unlike European players, who live and breathe football and change their whole life to adapt to their jobs as professional players. Once Egyptian players reach that level of professionalism, they will succeed for sure, because we have many great talents, but that on its own is not enough. Mindset is also an extremely important part of a player’s career.
You could have stayed longer in Europe. What made you decide to return home?
I made a great name for myself in Turkey and Belgium and I played for ten years in Europe, so yes, I could have stayed longer, but I felt that I had accomplished all I could there and that it was time to return home to win titles here in Egypt and leave a legacy here in my home country. I also had personal reasons: I wanted to raise my children in their homeland amidst our own customs and traditions.
And now the inevitable question – when do you intend to hang up your boots?
There will come a time when I will have to step off the pitch, of course, it’s a fact of life. But I haven’t decided when yet. I’ll retire only when I feel that I cannot or do not want to play football anymore. At that point, I’ll set some new goals for myself, most probably in coaching and sports media.