Aboutrika: Sky's the limit for new-look Ahly
Although Al Ahly will this month become the first club to participate in two successive FIFA Club World Cup finals, to many in the wider football world, the Egyptian giants remain a relative unknown quantity. The same could be said of their inspirational playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika, who despite being the only African-based player to make it on to the CAF African Footballer of the Year shortlist , is still considerably less well known than his fellow contenders, Messrs Drogba, Eto'o, Essien and Kanu.
Many believe, however, that Japan 2006 will see the 28-year-old finally announce his arrival on the world stage. There is certainly no arguing that, in the absence of Mohamed Barakat and striker Emad Meteab - who comprised with Aboutrika Al Ahly's attacking 'Bermuda triangle' - it fell to the club's talismanic playmaker to keep their often-problematic CAF Champions League defence on the rails.
Aboutrika even finished as the competition's joint-top scorer, and never was his worth to Al Ahly's cause - nor his ability to rise to the occasion - more amply demonstrated than in the dying seconds of the final's deciding leg against CS Sfaxien in Tunis. That was the moment in which the 28-year-old, with an impeccable sense of dramatic timing, smashed home a hugely important and brilliantly executed goal to keep his team perched on their continental throne for another year.
It also confirmed that Ahly would once again be making the journey to Japan, and ahead of rubbing shoulders with world football's elite, Aboutrika spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his club's hopes of improving on a disappointing showing in 2005.
FIFA.com: Your goal against Sfaxien will go down in history, but how did you manage to keep your calm at such an important moment in injury time?
Mohamed Aboutrika: After we drew 1-1 in Cairo , many people thought we would be unable to defend our title, but I had so many reasons to believe that we could win in Tunisia. First and foremost, it was down to my faith and belief in God, but I was also convinced that such a long trip should end by winning the cup because we overcame some real tough moments during the competition. I also believed in my team-mates and my coach, and I knew we were the better side - we were just not lucky enough in Cairo. Because of all of that, I was not really tense during the game, even when we were in injury time and the score was 0-0. That is also why I did not hesitate to shoot at that moment, and I just knew that I was going to score.
What was your toughest moment during the CAF Champions League campaign this year?
I think we did not play a single easy game. Due to injury, we were missing five international players who helped us win the competition in 2005 - in fact, for some of our matches we were not even able to find 18 fit players. We also had to cope with the death of Mohamed Abdelwahab .
So, do you feel that the team this year is very different to that which competed in Japan last year?
Certainly, we are missing Mohamed Barakat, who was a very important player in our team and is injured at the moment. The same is true for Gilberto; both of them were crucial for our system of play.
Does that mean that you are weaker than in 2005?
Quite honestly, we could not compensate for the absence of those players, but this year we have a lot of talented young players like Ahmed Shedeed, and I think some other players have been doing quite well. Flavio, for example, became one of our most important players. So I do not think I can say that we are weaker, all I can say is that we are different.
And do you think this different team can fare better than last year, when you finished last ?
I hope so. Our problem last year was that we lost our form, for some reason we could not play like we had before arriving in Japan. This time, I think we are regaining some of our magical form and, once we have harmony among our players, the sky will be the limit.
So, what do you expect from your side this year?
At least to do better than last time, although beating Auckland City in our opening match should be our main concern for now.
Finally, you have been nominated for the African Footballer of the Year award. Do you feel under pressure, given that you will be the only one of Africa's best five competing in Japan?
It is great to be among this top five, and I know that people expect a lot from me now. But all I care about at the moment is that we make a positive impact on the tournament this time and prove to everyone that we are worthy of going to Japan for a second time.