Aboutrika, Egypt's new idol
In January 2004, Mohamed Aboutrika was reborn when he joined Egyptian giants Al Ahly.
After nine years with Tersana, with whom he'd began his career at the tender age of 17, Aboutrika had arrived at an important junction in his career, one at which his mind was effectively made up for him by the opportunity to move to one of Africa's biggest clubs.
Al Ahly might not have been experiencing the best of times, having endured four successive years without a league title, but the Cairo giants' fans' faltering faith was soon to be restored, thanks in no small measure to the contribution of the new boy.
Serving a powerful cocktail of skill and strength in every game, Aboutrika was certainly the key player in Al Ahly's title-winning campaign last season, and also more often than not proved their trump card en route to victory in the CAF Champions League.
The consistently high level of his performances forced Marco Tardelli, Egypt's then coach, to give him a sustained run at international level, where Aboutrika initially found himself criticized by the local media for his wastefulness in front of goal in the 2-1 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying defeat to Côte d'Ivoire, which many considered the main reason behind the Egyptians' failure to reach Germany 2006.
Fortunately, a player known off the pitch for his humility and good manners was able to go from zero to hero with the Pharaohs fans in February 2006 when, ironically, against Côte d'Ivoire, he struck the decisive kick that delivered a record fifth victory in the CAF African Cup of Nations.
FIFA.com meets the player who now sits at the pinnacle of a pyramid of national popularity, looked up to even by the illustrious likes of Mido.
FIFA.com: Although you started to play for Tersana's first team at just 17, you only joined the Egyptian national team when you were 26. Why did it take you that long to emerge in international football?
Mohamed Aboutrika: I think I was the youngest player ever to represent Tersana and I was the squad's top scorer for many years, helping them gain promotion to Egypt's top division many times. Although I was picked for the National Olympic team, unfortunately I was never given a serious chance because the focus is always on players from the top clubs like Al Ahly, Al-Zamalek and Ismaily, and on the European-based players, of course.
As soon as I joined Ahly, I was under the same spotlight and it took me only a few games to receive my first call for the national team. To be honest, joining a club like Ahly helped me to shine because I had the support of many good players who helped me appear better on the pitch, whereas at Tersana they used to depend on me a lot.
So Al Ahly was your gate to fame?
Of course. We have one of the best European coaches, Manuel Jose, and he helped me develop my game, plus we have some magnificent players who assisted me in showing my best quality, and the club has terrific fans. That is all you need.
In the space of less than two years, you won promotion from the second division to the top league with Tersana, helped Al Ahly win the league and the CAF Champions League, and then your country to win the Nations Cup. Did you see it coming?
Everything happened very fast, it was like a dream, and I pray to God every day thanking Him for these blessings. Again, I believe joining Al Ahly was the main turning point in my career because, if I did not play for them, I do not think I would have ever been summoned for the national team or enjoyed the success we had.
Al Ahly have been unbeaten for almost two years in the national league. What is the secret behind this success?
We have one of the best sides, not only in Egypt, but in Africa. We have some top players like Mohamed Barakat and Emad Motaeb, a high profile coach who is really professional, and supportive fans. Plus, we have had some luck, which you always need in football.
Despite your brilliant run in the domestic league and the CAF competition, you failed to impress in the FIFA World Club Championship in Japan as Africa's representatives?
This was a very disappointing experience. I think we'd become big-headed because of the reputation we gained before the competition and, while we were thinking about facing Liverpool in the final of the competition, we shamefully lost to Al Ittihad and then Sydney FC. But I should also highlight that we were not all that bad. We played some good football - not our usual standard, but we were fine - however we were not scoring goals and that was our major problem.
Did you honestly expect Egypt to win the Nations Cup?
I did not expect anything. I knew we did not have the best odds but I was sure we had a good chance, especially as we were playing at home and because we as players wanted to make it up to our fans after we failed to reach the World Cup. There was a lot of determination among us to reach our target.
You were overjoyed by the goal you scored against Côte d'Ivoire in your team's 3-1 victory in the group stage, so much so that your celebrations earned you a yellow card.
Yes, I was elated and I have to admit that it was such a relief to score against the Elephants because of the campaign of criticism I received at home after missing a lot of chances against them in the World Cup qualifier. It was very important for me to score against them in this competition and, when I did, I could not control where my legs were taking me and I only realized that I was off pitch when the referee showed me the yellow card.
Again you were in the spotlight when you were chosen to take the decisive penalty kick against Côte d'Ivoire in the final game and scored the goal that guided your country to win the cup?
It is one of those moments in which you feel like you are having a great dream that you never want to wake up from. Although the few seconds before taking the spot kick were a huge burden, and I could feel that the hopes of the whole nation were on my shoulder, when I scored I was in seventh heaven. I do not want to even imagine what it would have been like to lose this cup.
What were the toughest moments of this competition for you as a player?
There were many tough moments during the games but I think our worst moment was that ugly scene between our coach Hassan Shehata and Mido, which took place during the semi-final match against Senegal.
Was winning the African Cup of Nations good compensation for failing to reach the FIFA World Cup finals?
Of course winning the Nations Cup was a great achievement and a good substitute for not reaching the FIFA World Cup. However, I still dream of appearing in a World Cup finals and I hope I can manage to do that in South Africa 2010.
What do you think of the African teams' chances in Germany 2006?
Côte d'Ivoire is an extremely tough side, they play a physical game but at the same time they do not lack in talent, which makes them a complete team. Despite being in a tough group, I am sure they will impress and they stand a very good chance of reaching the final rounds.
As for the other teams, I am really worried about the impression they might give of African football. It is unfortunate that countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco and Senegal will not represent Africa in the finals. However, I hope that the minnows like Togo and Angola can maintain the good reputation that has been established by African teams over the last two decades.
What are your own plans for the future?
I have received numerous offers from European sides to play in Ukraine, Russia or Germany. I also have an offer from Qatar, but I would prefer to move to Europe to develop my game.
I am currently 28 and this is the perfect stage of my career to make that move. Ideally, I am hoping to play in the Spanish League next year.