The Father of Egyptian Football
Ninety years ago, Egyptian football star Hussein Hegazi crossed Cairo to join Al Ahly from Zamalek, the last of several shifts of loyalty that helped create one the game’s great rivalries. today his legacy is barely remembered in a country where sport has become a political tool. Sean Williams takes a look at the man who was a giant of the game.
Most footballers move clubs because of money, or maybe for a shot at some silverware. For Hussein Hegazi, one of Egypt’s greatest-ever players, it was billiards — or rather, a lack of them. It was 1924 in Cairo, and Hegazi insisted the lack of bar games at the training facilities of his club, Zamalek, was sufficient reason to force a move to crosstown rivals Al Ahly.
It was hardly the move of a man described by a former patron as “honourable man as ever stepped onto a football field.” But he could do it. Hegazi ruled the Egyptian game, his legend having been established a decade earlier when he became Africa’s first footballer to play in the English league. He also practically founded the Al Ahly-Zamalek derby, which remains one of the world’s biggest sporting rivalries. If ‘The Pharaoh’ wanted a billiards table, he got a billiards table.
Today, some 90 years later, Hegazi is so bound up in the folklore of football along the Nile that he’s often called The Father of Egyptian Football. Yet he remains a mystery for most Egyptians, let alone the rest of the world, despite having enjoyed one of the sport’s most intriguing careers. And even more so considering his rise to prominence in the midst of the First World War, which decimated Britain and Egypt alike.
“Sorry” was a well-worn word in the Hegazi household. Each day the young boy, born in 1891, would kick a football up and down the streets of his Nile Delta village, hitting people and property as he went. His parents, who were relatively wealthy for the time, would follow, apologising and greasing the palms of irate neighbours.
Hegazi clearly had a knack for football, but the game was barely taking off in Egypt, which was still a British protectorate. His early sporting triumphs came in middle-distance running and it wouldn’t be until he enrolled as an engineering student at University College London that Hegazi, now aged 20, would tap into his true talents. He was snapped up by the south London semi-professional club Dulwich Hamlet and made his debut on September 2, 1911 where he immediately baffled opposition teams with his unorthodox playing style. Back then, English strikers were great lumps, good for little more than bundling an errant ball into the net. Hegazi was different: smaller, slender and a keen dribbler. Geographically challenged Dulwich fans soon dubbed him ‘Nebuchadnezzar’.
It took just a month at Dulwich for Hegazi to attract the attention of a professional club, Fulham FC, who invited him to play against Stockport County. Hegazi thus became the first African player ever to grace the English league game — and he took just 15 minutes to get his name on the scoresheet.
But the offer of a second match versus Leeds City was declined. “I was in a difficulty,” he said. “For I wanted very much to play in League football, and at the same time I did not want to leave Dulwich Hamlet, who have been very good to me… I am sorry if Fulham are disappointed.”
English football, a working-class game, was sharply divided between professionals and amateurs. For Hegazi, who also studied at Cambridge University, money wasn’t an issue. So he played for Dulwich for another three years, featuring in famous wins that included a tour victory over Dutch masters Ajax Amsterdam. He also made two appearances for east Londoners Millwall, and represented Middlesex County five times. So enamoured was one local paper, that it had a poet pen a eulogy to Hegazi:
“Egypt of course, has a magical history. Look at her Pyramids — likewise her Sphinx! Think of her scarabs, wrapt simply in mystery —Sort of a mystical beetle, methinks.
Here’s where he bought (they’re enchanted) his boots Hussein’s a terror whenever he shoots.”
And then in 1914 Britain was at war and almost all of Hegazi’s teammates were sent to the trenches of northern Europe. Hegazi travelled back to Cairo, but he could not escape the war. Almost 1.2 million troops were deployed to the fronts in Egypt and Palestine, where the Ottoman Empire, backed by the German-led Central Powers, fought the British and Russians, backed by Armenians, Assyrians, Jews and the majority of Arabs. Most of Hegazi’s British friends never returned to their homes.
“Hegazi had the attitude that Egyptians could do anything,” says Ahmed Assem, an editor at Egyptian football website KingFut.com. Upon returning home, he elected to play for Al-Sekka, Cairo’s oldest club. A year later he left Al-Sekka to found his own team, the modestly named Hegazi XI (alternately ‘Hegazi for Arts’).
Thousands of British troops were stationed in the city, many of whom fought vainly in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Hegazi made money during this period by challenging troops to exhibition matches. The first, against a team called Stanley Tim, won Hegazi’s charges a bounty of 10 Egyptian pounds — equivalent to Dhs8,700 today. Stanley Tim upped the ante to 180 pounds (Dhs157,000) for a second leg, and the Hegazi XI won again. “People liked Hegazi because he challenged the British,” says Assem.
By 1917, the loyalty Hegazi had shown to his old club Dulwich had all but disappeared. That year he transferred to Al Ahly, a working-class club from the heart of Cairo. With Egypt’s greatest player on board, Al Ahly won the league each year until 1919 when he switched to crosstown rivals Zamalek. In 1924, the billiard-deprived Hegazi switched back to Ahly. Four years after that, he was forced out of the club for refusing to receive a cup runner’s-up medal from the Egyptian government.
Incensed, Hegazi returned to Zamalek and assembled a team of students as the starting eleven. A subsequent shock 1-0 victory over Al Ahly prompted the Zamalek chant that continues to this day: “Madrasat El-Fann wa El-Handasa”, or “Zamalek, the School of Arts and Engineering”. “Wherever he went became the best team in Egypt,” says Assem. “Local journalists would say that ‘the clock had turned’.”
Indeed, the establishment of one of football’s fiercest derbies is perhaps solely down to Hegazi’s disloyalty. Today, when Zamalek play Al Ahly, streets are cleared and Cairo roars. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the city in the 1950s, Ahly had just defeated Zamalek and people were cheering in the streets. “I never thought Egyptians were that excited to see me,” the Soviet leader told one official. “They aren’t celebrating because you’re visiting,” replied the Egyptian. “They’re celebrating because Al Ahly beat Zamalek.”
Hegazi played internationally at two Olympic Games. In 1920 he scored in a 4-2 defeat of Yugoslavia and, four years later, scored again in a shock 3-0 rout of Hungary before Egypt were eliminated 5-0 by Sweden. His legacy, though, remains distinctly local. In 2007, a Cairene street was named after him. It was one of the places where, in 2011, young Egyptians gathered to topple Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring.
Football is hugely popular in today’s Egypt but has sadly become a pawn in the violence and sectarianism that has gripped the society. In February 2012, as Mohamed Morsi was establishing Muslim Brotherhood rule, 79 fans were killed at a riot between Al Ahly and Al-Masry. The season was suspended indefinitely soon after. Last season was also cut short after Morsi was ousted in a coup d’état, and fights regularly break out between rival fans.
Hegazi, however, was all about the game. In 1931 he retired from the playing field, and died 27 years later, aged 67. “He doesn’t have a legend beyond football,” says Assem. “He worked with the Egyptian FA, and he made the biggest rivalry in African football. But he was not one of those people who got into politics, or influenced the leading people.
“If it were up to me I would start a museum for the guy.”