THE INVASION CAME JUST SECONDS AFTER THE FINAL WHISTLE, floods of dark jackets spilling onto the pitch armed with knives, rocks and broken bottles. Swarming from left to right, thousands of delirious men vaulted the advertising hoardings with blood in their throats, chasing the fleeing Al Ahly players into the bowels of the decrepit stadium.
The night before the game, a Facebook page had warned the visiting supporters that death awaited them in Port Said. At first it seemed like an empty threat, but as the stadium lights extinguished and the exits were locked, it quickly became clear that the threat was real. Some were stabbed to death, others were thrown from the stands. Most – including the youngest victim at just 13 – were suffocated by the crush in the exit tunnel.
The murders would be blamed on the police, who appeared to stand by as the armed thugs descended unchecked from the stands. The violence, they argued, was brutal retribution against the Ultras Ahlawy, Al Ahly’s hardcore support that had played a prominent role in the Tahrir Square demonstrations the year before.
Many of those who made it to the dressing rooms would perish, bloodied and overcome by their grievous injuries as the horrified players watched on. One of the dying had time, however, to savour his final moments in the arms of the greatest footballer his country had ever produced. “Captain, I always wanted to meet you.”
Mohamed Aboutrika is a legend for many reasons, but his place in Egyptian folklore was confirmed on 1 February 2012. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, he would visit the home of every victim of what eventually became known as the Port Said Massacre. Before that day, he had simply been a brilliant footballer. After it, he became a symbol.
Raised with little on the arid streets of Giza, Aboutrika’s days were marked by games of football in the city’s crowded and narrow alleys. A promising if slight midfielder, he joined second division side Tersana in his teens, honing his game in the shadow of the city’s famous Pyramids.
His intelligent displays soon resulted in the offer of a pay rise, but to the bemusement of coach Hasan El Shazli, Aboutrika refused. A teammate, he suggested, had performed just as well and should also have been rewarded with an improved contract. Either the coach awarded the same amount to both players or nothing at all.
If he was selfless off the pitch, Aboutrika was ruthless on it, his callous efficiency firing Tersana into the first division. Egypt’s big clubs started to take notice, Al Ahly fending off rivals Zamalek to sign him halfway through the 2003/04 season. Little did the Red Devils know that the signing would propel them into the most remarkable period in their history.
The Cairenes were in the midst of a four-year trophy drought before Aboutrika scored 11 goals in 13 games to seal a superb league and Champions League double. Egypt, it seemed, had found a new hero to worship.
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The records would keep tumbling for the 26-year-old, as Al Ahly went 55 games without defeat, unbeaten records in the post-war era. The Red Devils coasted to the title in 2006, Aboutrika’s partnership with Mohamed Barakat and Emad Moteab overwhelming all comers. ‘Trika’ was unplayable, topping the league with 18 clinically taken strikes as his post-goal sajdah became more and more familiar to Egyptian fans. The Champions League would also be retained for good measure, his 91st- minute strike breaking CS Sfaxien’s hearts in the dying moments.
Two years prior, El Magico’s form had been rewarded with an international debut, Pharoahs coach Marco Tardelli wowed by his predatory instincts. Inevitably, Aboutrika marked his debut against Trinidad and Tobago with a goal. After four in his first five appearances for the national team, his venomous proficiency continued into the 2006 African Cup of Nations, where he contributed a vital assist for Amr Zaki to progress to the final in Cairo.
The game saw 80,000 Egyptians clamour noisily into the International Stadium. The opponents were Cameroon, the West Africans the only thing standing in the way of Egypt’s first continental trophy since 1998. After a tense match had ended 0-0, Baky Koné’s missed penalty presented Aboutrika with a chance to make history. He wouldn’t let it pass, sending the keeper the wrong way as the stadium erupted in a sea of red, white and black.
Two years later he would be equally decisive, confidently sliding underneath Carlos Kameni in Accra to retain the title. His performances saw him crowned BBC African Footballer of the Year in 2009 with almost half of the 200,000 votes, beating Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o in the process.
A stunning year got even better as Al Ahly qualified for the Club World Cup in Japan that Christmas. Sweeping aside Auckland City in their opening game courtesy of one of his trademark set-pieces, the Red Devils faced Brazilian giants Internacional in the semi-final. Alexandre Pato and Luiz Adriano may have progressed, but Aboutrika was the best player on the pitch, unlucky not to score as his opportunistic effort struck the post.
His form would continue into the third-place final against Club América, another two world-class goals making him the tournament’s top scorer. Like everybody who had seen him play that year, the Japanese media were suitably impressed, naming him as the player of the tournament as Al Ahly won a historic bronze medal.
Why, then, amidst interest from all of the top European leagues, did such a talented player stay in Egypt? “I always signed a blank cheque because my love for this club has nothing to do with money.”
Aboutrika had spent nine years with Tersana, most of them in the second division. By the time he moved to Al Ahly he was approaching 30, but age was immaterial for a player who had always relied more on timing and technique than physical prowess. He could have played in Germany, Italy or Spain, but he simply didn’t want to. For him, playing for the greatest club in Africa was recognition enough.
Moreover, he could never forget the club who signed him from relative obscurity. Al Ahly had turned him into a star, and he felt obligated to help build on their success. As the Egyptian journalist Hassan Mistikawi put it: “Aboutrika has won the highest prize any person can achieve, that is the love of the people.”
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His loyalty would be richly rewarded. Another four league titles arrived between 2009 and 2011, as Al Ahly continued to dominate football on the continent. Glory would continue for the national team too, Aboutrika controlling a Confederations Cup game against Brazil to wow international audiences further.
His club would have inevitably continued winning had it not been for the bloody scenes in Port Said. As the graves were dug and the recriminations cast, Egyptian football was suspended for a year. Al Ahly’s number 22, shaken by the murderous events in the Port, had initially announced his retirement from the game alongside teammates Mohamed Barakat and Emad Moteab.
All three were convinced to return shortly after, quoting the obligation they felt to honour the memories of the dead by playing on. After all, there was still a Champions League title to win. The game on 14 May 2012, barely three months after fans had bled to death on their changing room floor, needed an inspiration.
Aboutrika had started the game on the bench, before replacing the injured Mohamed Shawky just before half time. Eight minutes later he’d headed in the equalising goal, before he bagged another two late strikes to seal a stunning victory and an impressive hat-trick.
He would score another three goals in the tournament before playing a crucial role in the victory over Ésperanc in the final. Al Ahly, having witnessed the depths of human depravity just months before, had brought glory to thousands of their heartbroken fans.
Aged 34, Aboutrika signed a short-term loan with Bani Yas in 2013, joining the Emiratis for a successful charge at the Gulf Champions League. Wearing the number 72 on his back in memory of the Port Said victims, the gangly trequartista would score in the semis and final before returning to Al Ahly.
He retired later that year, with eight domestic tittles and five Champions Leagues. But a man of his calibre could never be allowed – could never allow himself – to drift wearily into the sunset. After scoring against Sudan in group game at the 2008 Cup of Nations, Aboutrika had lifted his shirt to reveal a message that said ‘Sympathise with Gaza’. Whilst the pictures were greeted warmly in Ramallah, the gesture was the first indication of a player who had more than football on his mind.
“I always say that as a footballer, you have a message that you can convey besides football,” he would later admit to the Egyptian media. It was no surprise, then, that as the Arab Spring took root in Tahrir Square in 2011, murals and replica shirts bearing Aboutrika’s name would be interwoven with the young faces hoping for change.
The Al Ahly man symbolised not only footballing excellence but also the chance for a more modern and outward-looking society. He, with his eloquent pronouncements on hunger and blood donation, epitomised perhaps more than any other Egyptian sportsman the possibility of change and modernity.
Read | How Egypt’s Pharaohs arose from the abyss
He was aided, of course, by the ultras of both Zamalek and Al Ahly, who had foregone their traditional rivalry to play a key role in the organisation of the Tahrir Square protests. Aboutrika’s regular presence at prayers in the square was a considerable boon to a movement looking for a recognisable figurehead, but it was only a matter of time before he became a target.
After previously declaring his support for the deposed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Aboutrika was viewed with increasing suspicion by the newly-imposed military regime. His business interests came under intense scrutiny, with suggestions that he had used his part-ownership of a tourism company to fund terrorist activity. After his financial assets were frozen in 2013, he spoke out in defiance at those who wished to force him out: “I won’t leave the country and I will continue to work towards its advancement,” he proclaimed.
He was met with almost universal support. Wael Reyad was one of the most prominent advocates, tweeting that “you can seize his money, but you can’t seize our love for him’. National team players, Mohamed Salah and Mohamed Elneny, also spoke out in his favour, as did a clatter of his Al Ahly teammates. Eventually the wider public joined in too, the hashtag #ISupportAbouTrika spreading like bushfire through Egyptian social media.
It would seem churlish, however, to finish this story anywhere but the football pitch. After all, it was at the Cairo International Stadium that Egypt first fell in love with its darling number 22. It was there that memories were forged, the inch-perfect passes and clinical volleys shining nostalgically in their minds.
By the time Orlando Pirates faced Al Ahly in the first leg of the Champions League final on 2 November 2013, everybody knew Aboutrika was retiring. Like almost every match he had played in his career, he would be decisive, Senzo Meyiwa given no chance with a stunning free-kick on 14 minutes. After Thabo Matlaba had scored a late equaliser, the match was finely poised for the second leg.
On a clear evening in Cairo on 10 November 2013, Al Ahly walked out onto the pitch at the International Stadium seeking their eighth Champions League title. But even that felt like a sideshow, the crowd singing Aboutreika’s name with his every touch of the ball.
When he scored nine minutes after half-time, the crowd erupted. Their hero, who had scored almost 200 in his 10 years in the capital, had been their inspiration yet again. Ahmed Abdel-Zaher’s goal on 78 minutes confirmed the trophy, but the lasting image would be of Al Ahly’s legendary number 22 climbing the security barriers to celebrate with his brothers.
He had chosen them over money and fame, had chosen loyalty and modesty over European riches, and had bled with their brothers and shared their burden. They were his, and he was theirs.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45