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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Egypt's Abou-Treika, the Saint, signs off with trademark smile

Mohamed Abou-Treika finally calls it a day after leaving an indelible mark on Egyptian football, etching his name among the country's all-time greats

Hatem Maher, Friday 20 Dec 2013
Mohamed Abou-Treika
Egypt's Mohamed Aboutrika celebrates his goal during their men's first round Group C preliminary soccer match against Belarus at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Hampden Park in Glasgow, August 1, 2012 (Photo: reuters)
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As he waved to the passionate crowd chanting his name at his final home game, Mohamed Abou-Treika resembled a conductor saluting his audience following his final musical performance, or a Spanish noble gesturing to his lovers after emerging victorious from a bullfight.

Such was the impact of the evergreen footballer that he had to ignore repeated pleas from his fans to carry on. He was insistent on bringing the curtain down on his career while he was still going strong, rather than calling it a day after he had lost his magic wand.

In recent years, Abou-Treika, a classic playmaker constantly likened to French great Zinedine Zidane, was not as much of a threat as he was in his prime, with his typical marauding forays in the final third nowhere to be seen

But he still managed to draw cheers from the crowd with his trademark defence-splitting passes, usually followed by a winning smile.

His last match in front Ahly's die-hard supporters, who carried him on their shoulders and chanted his name when his teammates deserted them, saw him torment the backline of South Africa's Orlando Pirates to guide his team to a record-breaking eighth African Champions League title.

For a footballer who had achieved so much, there was little to play for after Egypt suffered a humiliating 7-3 aggregate defeat by Ghana to miss out on next year's World Cup finals in Brazil.

A World Cup appearance is the only accolade missing from Abou-Treika's impressive CV, and it seems that the 35-year-old realised that even if he were to keep playing until the 2018 tournament, he would probably not be fit enough to make the Egypt team.

"Abou-Treika was capable of playing for two more years at least. But the defeat by Ghana was demoralising and he felt he had to retire after the World Cup dream was over," said Ahly's former Portuguese coach Manuel Jose, the player's mentor (See: Football stars paying tribute to Abou-Treika).

The schemer's last adventure with Ahly was somewhat disappointing. He headed over the bar with the goal at his mercy and limped off injured at halftime as the Red Devils put in a lacklustre display to lose 2-0 to China's Guangzhou Evergrande in the Club World Cup quarter final.

But that can hardly be considered a blot on an otherwise glorious career that was marked by his contribution to humanitarian efforts as much as his exploits on the field.

"I would like to congratulate him [Abou-Treika] for his outstanding career. I'm unhappy for him if this should be his last game," Guangzhou coach Marcello Lippi, who steered Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, said after the Chinese side beat Ahly.

Mohamed Abou-Treika
Mohamed Abou-Treika of Egypt's Ahly gestures to cheering fans after he was substituted during their African Champions League final soccer match against South Africa's Orlando Pirates at the Arab Contractors Stadium in Cairo, November 10, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Rise to fame

Abou-Treika was little known when he joined Ahly in 2004 from Tersana for the modest sum of LE450,000, considered by many to be a straightforward signing the Cairo giants made to shake off a crisis.

But it turned out to be one of their most astute acquisitions ever.

He produced flashes of his brilliance even when his side were inferior to arch-rivals Zamalek, finding the net with a screamer in his first Cairo derby after leaving a couple of defenders trailing in his wake -- setting the tone for a decade of glory.

"Abou-Treika is exceptional. I don't think any player can emulate his success," said former Egypt coach Hassan Shehata, under whom the player blossomed to steer the Pharaohs to two successive African Cup of Nations titles in 2006 and 2008.

"He can still play at the highest level for more years, despite his age," Shehata added.

Proving too difficult to contain, Abou-Treika mesmerised opposing defenders with his twists and turns, clever dummies, stepovers, thumping shots and killer instinct, which saw him score 107 Egyptian Premier League goals for Tersana and Ahly and 38 goals in 100 international appearances with Egypt (Fact and figures of Abou-Treika's career).

His strikes were often decisive, including the last-gasp volley that gave Ahly the 2006 African Champions League title at the expense of Tunisia's Sfaxien, and the low shot which helped Egypt defeat Cameroon in the Nations Cup final two years later.

Abou-Treika, who had a brief stint with Emirati club Baniyas this year -- his only spell abroad -- is also the Cairo derby's all-time top scorer with 13 goals.

"My goal against Sfaxien was the most precious one of my career. It was also a turning point for me," he said, recalling the stunning strike which solidified his cult status with Ahly's faithful.

Off-the-pitch hero

Nicknamed "the Saint" for his mild manners, Abou-Treika was also lauded for his off-field actions and contribution to humanitarian issues, which ensured his popularity went way beyond football.

He famously lifted his shirt during a Nations Cup group-stage game against Sudan in 2008 to reveal a T-shirt with the message "sympathise with Gaza" when the enclave was under an Israeli blockade, infuriating tournament officials by violating rules against political slogans, but earning widespread praise back home and in other Arab countries.

He also took part in a charity game in 2005, for the cause of ending poverty, lining up along with the likes of Zidane, his role model, and former Brazil striker Ronaldo.

"Every athlete has a humanitarian role in society. He doesn't live solely for himself, but for others too," he said at the time.

"I like to participate in charity work and try my best to help the poor and penniless. I'm also seeking to use soccer in humanitarian work."

Despite being reprimanded by local media, Abou-Treika opted to skip an Egyptian Super Cup game last year to stand by Ahly's hardcore supporters, the Ultras Ahlawy, who were angry at the team's decision to play the match before justice was done in the Port Said disaster.

Describing the football tragedy as the worst memory of his life, an emotional Abou-Treika said he would retire from the game, but it was later clear that the assertion was made in the heat of the moment, with the talented player going on to lead to his club to more titles.

"Abou-Treika is the best person I've met in my entire life, because he is a fantastic person. He is concerned about all the people all the time, especially the poor," Jose, the coach who brought Abou-Treika to Ahly nearly 10 years ago, said of his favourite player.

Egypt's streets and alleys are full of kids wearing Abou-Treika's famous number 22 shirt. Many dream of following in his footsteps one day.

"All the people fail except Abou-Treika," Jose said, affectionately.

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