Resuming training on Monday after a 20-day stoppage, Ahly players recognised they desperately needed someone to lift the sombre mood that has accompanied them since the Port Said tragedy which left 74 fans killed early this month.
The one they were missing, evergreen midfielder Mohamed Barakat, was seemingly not ready to do what he does best off the field - producing gales of laughter that usually proves effective in easing the pains of losing a crucial match or surrendering a much-awaited triumph.
But the pains of the Port Said disaster were so unbearable that Barakat himself needed help.
The mercurial midfielder, one of the team’s most consistent performers during the past seven years, remained on the bench during Monday’s session, abandoning the Ahly shirt he used to wear and licking his wounds.
He sat down with Ahly’s psychiatrist but the efforts to convince him to backtrack on his abrupt decision to hang up his boots have so far failed to materialise.
The image of the corpses of Ahly fans who died after a pitch invasion by Masry supporters immediately following the end of an Egyptian Premier League was frozen in the memory of a player whose most painful footballing moment was probably Egypt’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup when they were so close.
He even had to run for his life to escape Masry’s onrushing die-hard fans, who confronted the visiting supporters to spark deadly clashes that forced a suspension of all domestic football activities in the country.
“Mohamed is very determined to stick his decision to retire. I advised him to carry on for at least two years because he remains in a very good physical shape,” the player’s father said in a phone interview with Al-Hayat television channel.
“He told me the scenes he witnessed will not allow him to play. If he recalls those scenes, he will never be able to perform well. The corpses were in front of him in the dressing room.
“I hope that he will reverse his decision, I want him to return to the pitch. I will talk to him again about that.”
Barakat was one of Ahly’s panicked players who phoned the club’s in-house TV channel in the midst of the tragedy as he launched a scathing attack on football authorities, accusing them of only caring about money through running the league competition “at all costs."
It was subsequently quite clear Barakat was not ready to carry on playing. Several of his teammates, including decorated playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika, insisted they would not play again unless the culprits of the disaster were brought to justice but the 35-year-old opted to take a somewhat different path, a painful one to his admirers.
Barakat is now presenting a stark contrast to his old self. His constant jokes used to amuse his teammates and TV presenters alike, with the latter jostling to interview the man whose appearance even attracts a big number of non-football viewers.
He famously presented a candid camera show in Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan three years ago, after which Ahly made it clear that they would not allow him to replicate that experience.
He responded in style.
“The club deprived me of my show, and I decided to become a TV presenter in their own channel,” he sarcastically said, holding a microphone emblazoned with Ahly’s logo before interviewing the usually soft-spoken Abou-Treika in a hilarious dialogue.
His witty remarks include saying that it was normal for him to score against Bayern Munich after finding the net in Ahly’s 2-1 friendly defeat by the German giants in Qatar in January 2012.
Football-wise, Barakat was equally eye-catching, thanks to his penetration skills and goal-scoring prowess which made him one of Egypt’s finest footballers in the last two decades.
He haunted Ahly when he led bitter rivals Ismaily to the last of their three league titles in 2002. He moved to the Red Devils two years later to embark on a hugely-successful stint that yielded a host of trophies, including seven league titles and three African Champions League triumphs.
His memorable goals include the final strike in a 3-0 home victory over Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel in the 2005 Champions League final and a last-gasp equalizer that helped Ahly draw 3-3 with arch-rivals Zamalek in the Cairo derby in 2010.
He was not equally successful on the international level, however, as he only participated in Egypt’s 2006 African Cup of Nations win before missing the subsequent two triumphs in 2008 and 2010 amid accusations that he feigned injury to skip national duty.
He announced his retirement from international football after the Pharaohs failed to reach the 2010 World Cup.
“Barakat suffered a lot after the horrific disaster in Port Said. I still consider his decision as an emotional one that was taken in the heat of the moment,” Ahly football director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz said on the club’s official website.
“Ahly need Barakat, who is not only a good player but also an icon. I will keep in touch with him and we will not give up hope to convince him to come out of retirement.”
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