Ahmed ‘Kouka’ Hassan was gutted to miss out on Russia 2018
The striker will do anything he can to help Egypt reach Qatar 2022
He reveals a challenge with old friend Mo Salah
Egypt star Ahmed ‘Kouka’ Hassan took an unconventional route to stardom, leaving his homeland earlier than many of his peers. Kouka’s precocious talents enabled him to secure a move to Rio Ave in Portugal before he turned 20.
“In the world of football you get few opportunities, so you have to seize them just like when you take chances in front of goal,” Kouka told FIFA.com. “As a young boy, I was looking forward to being promoted to Al-Ahly’s first team, especially when coach Manuel Jose asked me to join their training sessions.
"After I’d taken part in the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, I expected that to happen but it didn’t. I wanted to showcase my abilities and develop myself at the right time, so I decided to go to Portugal where I signed for Rio Ave. Eight years on, I think that was definitely a good step in my career.”
Kouka was only 18 when he joined forces with the likes of Mohamed Salah, Ahmed Hegazy, and Mahmoud Trezeguet in the Egypt squad that finished third at the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations South Africa 2011. That performance earned Egypt a place at Colombia 2011. During the pre-tournament training camps, Kouka caught the attention of several clubs with his outstanding performances, and after he returned from Colombia, he received several offers before joining Rio Ave and embarking on a journey marked with challenges.
"Like any young player at Al-Ahly, I was hoping to play for the first team,” said Hassan. “I was honoured to train with great stars who had dominated Africa for several years such as Mohamed Aboutrika, Emad Moteab and Mohamed Barakat, but at that time it was very difficult to get playing time, so I decided to head to Europe.
"I knew it was going to be more than just a professional journey. It was certainly a huge challenge, but I was determined to succeed no matter what.”
“The beginning was rough because I moved into a different environment and a lifestyle totally dedicated to football. There was no going back. Coach Nuno Santo gave me the opportunity to play against Sporting Lisbon in the League Cup when I scored my first goal. I gained confidence early on, and my performance improved day by day.”
During his first three years with Rio Ave, Kouka appeared in the finals of the Portuguese Cup, League Cup and Super Cup, and despite not lifting a trophy, his goal tally of 32 in 98 games for the club was proof that he was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Two games into his fourth season in Portugal and despite nearly joining Benfica, Hassan moved to Braga and embarked on a new, even more competitive adventure.
“I think it was an important step in my career," said the 27-year-old forward. "The club wanted to compete for titles and I helped them win their first trophy in 50 years. In a historic Cup final against Porto, I scored the third penalty that paved the way to our 4-2 win."
Kouka played for Braga in the UEFA Europa League over the three seasons he spent with the club.
“Playing in the Europa League is certainly an added bonus," he said. "You get to test yourself against teams belonging to various football schools such as Shakhtar, Fenerbahce and Hoffenheim. And then there are teams with great history such as Marseille. It’s important to have those sorts of experiences every year.”
Kouka then caught the eyes of Olympiacos, and joined the Greek giants first on loan, for the 2018 season, and then permanently following a second successful loan spell in 2019.
"After I’d spent some years in Portugal, I needed to experience a new football environment," he said. "It’s very competitive in Greece, and the fans there are so passionate. I’m happy to be playing for Olympiacos and I am ready to do all I can to serve the team and make the fans happy."
Kouka helped his new club win the league last season.
“For my second loan period I returned to the club mid-season,” he said. “Our goal was to win the league after a two-year drought. I worked hard to get some playing time and contributed some goals,
"During the play-offs, I played in nine out of ten games and I scored four goals. We won the title and I was very happy. This is my first league title and it’s really special. I also won the player of the play-offs award which made me even happier."
Kouka first got to play at the global level when he took part in two consecutive editions of the FIFA U-20 World Cup: Colombia 2011 and Turkey 2013, scoring twice at the latter. Asked about these events, he said: “Young players need to play in a global tournament to gain much-needed experience. I did that twice and it really helped me improve. Since then, I have always hoped to play at the FIFA World Cup™.”
Having impressed at the Turkey 2013, Kouka received a call-up to join the senior national team and promptly found the net against Uganda to establish himself in the squad.
“Thank God I had a very good start with the national team," he said. "I scored a brace against Chad in the second round of the Russia 2018 qualifiers. We were determined to make the World Cup after a long absence.”
Kouka took part in three out of six Group E games, including the vital 2-1 win against Congo to claim Egypt's spot at Russia 2018.
“I started that game. All Egyptians were behind us throughout the qualifiers and we didn’t want to disappoint them. It’s true that we experienced some hard times, but we ultimately won and millions of Egyptians were happy we made the World Cup."
In 2017, Kouka was part of Egypt’s squad that took part in the Africa Cup of Nations. The Pharaohs came very close to winning the title too, after a long drought, but Cameroon turned the tables on them in the final and won 2-1. In 2018, Kouka remained part of the squad until the final training camp where he heard of Hector Cuper’s decision not to include him in the group heading to Russia 2018.
“It was so hard to receive such news just before the World Cup," he said. "I wanted to represent my country at the biggest football tournament, but as a professional, I accepted the decision and wished my team-mates the best. I was determined to work hard and I won the league next season with Olympiacos."
After Egypt’s shock elimination at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2019 on home soil, change was deemed necessary. Hossam El Badry was appointed as head coach and the former Al-Ahly coach soon realised that that the squad’s biggest weakness was the lack of top-class marksmen. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, El Badry sent a clear message to Kouka, encouraging him to continue to work hard and improve as a striker.
Kouka said: "I’d like to thank El Badry for his support and constant communication with me. For my part, I will continue to work on improving my performance in order to do what’s expected when I receive a call-up to join the national team. We have two huge tasks ahead of us: qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and making the next Africa Cup of Nations and competing to win the title.”
After a long season that saw him win the Greek league, Kouka finally got to spend some downtime during which he met his friend Mohamed Salah, who had just won the Premier League with Liverpool. Asked about what they discussed, he said: “Salah is an old friend. We started our careers together with the U-20 national team.
"Whenever we meet, we recall memories of the past and talk about the present. Interestingly, last season we both won the league where we play. I told him that next season I will score more goals than he does with Liverpool. He accepted the challenge and told me that I wouldn’t win. (smiles)
"I wish him all the best. He’s an extraordinary ambassador for Egyptian football and I’m proud of what he’s achieved. I hope we play against each other in the Champions League.”