On 12 December 2017, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah was sitting top of the Premier League goalscoring charts, the Egyptian having netted an impressive 13 times since his summer move from Roma. On the same evening, League One leaders Wigan Athletic narrowly beat AFC Fylde 3-2 in an FA Cup second round replay. Whilst today these two scenarios carry little common ground, nine years ago they were very much related, thanks to an unknown striker who disappeared as silently as he’d arrived.
Amr Zaki debuted in 2001 at local side El Mansoura. The 19-year-old quickly notched up an impressive record of nine goals in 20 second division games, leading to a move in 2003 to Premier League side ENPPI. In 2005 Zaki scored in both semi-finals as ENPPI won the Egyptian Cup, their first major honour, alongside achieving a record high league finish of second place.
Such prolific form was not going unnoticed, and he was already being linked to the two giants of Al Ahly and Zamalek. Zaki’s international form only served to widen the interest. Debuting in 2004 against the Ivory Coast, he hit six goals in seven World Cup qualifying games, going on to play a key part as Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006.
Rumours of Nantes, Newcastle and Southampton interest was rife, although Zaki chose Lokomotiv Moscow. Unfortunately, the move backfired, with the player unable to adjust to the cold climate in Russia, leaving just three months later without an appearance to his name.
He returned home, to Zamalek, and made an instant impact with eight goals in his first nine games. Another impressive start the following season offers an insight into what was to happen at Wigan. In both these campaigns Zaki started well, although goal returns soon tailed off. Even so, another Egyptian Cup was won in 2008, Zaki scoring the winner in the final against his former employers ENPPI.
It was to be his form in an Egypt shirt, however, particularly at the 2008 AFCON, which attracted further interest from Europe. A group stage goal against Zambia was followed by a quarter-final winner against Angola, capped off by a brace in the semis against Ivory Coast. The first was a fantastic header which cannoned in off the bar, and the second a display of brute strength and determination. Egypt marched into the final, beating Cameroon to retain their crown. By way of FIFA rankings, these returns on the international stage made him the world’s best striker.
Read | The Orwellian world of Egyptian football: state interference, fan-less clubs and unbridled passion
This alerted Steve Bruce, who liked what he saw. Quick, powerful, technically gifted, strong in the air and possessing a ferocious appetite to pressure defenders, this was a striker seemingly made for the Premier League. “Anyone with a one in two strike rate over 50 odd international games knows where the back of the net is. Although he hasn’t played in the Premier League, I am convinced this boy can do the business.” So serious was the Wigan manager, he made two personal visits to Cairo to seal the deal.
Despite this, Zaki joined the Latics in July 2008 to little fanfare. The decision initially raised the eyebrows of owner Dave Whelan, who was quoted as saying, “A striker from Egypt? Very unusual,” when Bruce informed him of his interest. The signing was an initial loan for the measly figure of £1 million, with an option to secure the deal for a further £5 million.
Latics fans didn’t have to wait long to see the man nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ firing. On his debut he scored the winner in a friendly against Sheffield Wednesday, also scoring the only goal in the next match at Hibernian. His first Premier League start ended in a 2-1 defeat at West Ham, although Zaki caught the imagination with a wonderfully taken volley. He also impressed in a 1-0 loss to Chelsea, scoring two days later in a League Cup tie with Notts County.
Wigan’s first points of the season came in a 5-0 win over Hull; unsurprisingly, the Egyptian starred once again, this time getting on the scoresheet twice. The following game, a 1-1 draw with Sunderland, involved another strike from the Egyptian. He seemed untouchable, with his manager labelling him “awesome” after he converted a penalty to secure a 2-1 victory over Manchester City. Meanwhile, Whelan’s sentiment had reversed, and he compared Zaki’s style and physique to Alan Shearer, something which the Newcastle legend concurred with on Match of the Day.
This remarkable start naturally attracted speculation as to where the Egyptian could end up, with these rumours only enhanced by a trip to Anfield. It was a game which proved to catapult Zaki to new heights. Wigan went in 2-1 up at half time, with both goals coming through Zaki. Liverpool may have rallied late on to walk away with the three points, but what got everyone talking was the performance of Wigan’s number 13.
The first goal was another display of his power and determination, although did admittedly involve a shocking pass from Pepe Reina to Daniel Agger. Take nothing away from Zaki, though, who sniffed out the danger and knocked the Dane off the ball before sweeping under Reina. The second goal came through the tenacity of Antonio Valencia, who whipped the ball into the box. Just like at West Ham, the Egyptian took it on the volley, although this time he was airborne as he rifled the ball into the top corner.
In the second half, his selfless running ensured Agger and Jamie Carragher endured a torrid afternoon. Following the match, Rafa Benítez was unable to deny his interest in the player, stating: “Everybody will be checking his situation now.”
Read | The rise and fall of Mido, Egypt’s volatile son
Such were his performances, sports shops in the north-west sold out of Zs to print on the back of Wigan shirts. However, it was important to remember he was still only at the JJB Stadium on a temporary basis. Wigan insisted they had the first option to sign him, although different noises were being made by Zamalek president Mamdouh Abbas. “We will have the right to sell Zaki to any club.” There was media speculation linking him to Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and even Real Madrid.
Unfortunately, that wonderful goal at Anfield would turn out to be his last from open play in England. A penalty against Portsmouth was followed by three weeks out with illness. Following that was a man of the match performance on Boxing Day against Newcastle and another penalty two days later at Bolton. The man hailed as the find of the season was nominated for African Player of the Year, although he lost out to Emmanuel Adebayor.
In January, Aston Villa were reported to have had a bid of £14 million turned down amongst a host of other interested parties, but Zaki remained in Lancashire. Wigan tried themselves to sign him, with a final bid of £8 million turned down by Zamalek. Zaki discussed the situation with Abbas, who put a price of £250 million on him and claimed he was “better than Messi”. This constant speculation agitated Bruce: “All of this nonsense around him, I do believe gets to him a little bit.”
A month-long injury layoff and wage dispute was followed by Ramadan, with a differing of opinion with Bruce over the player’s fasting. There was also trouble when Wigan signed Zaki’s compatriot Mido, with personal problems rife between the pair. Mido accused Zaki and his agent of fabricating stories about him, who they claim had reacted angrily to being benched by national coach Hassan Shehata in favour of Zaki.
Things only got worse in April following a World Cup qualifier against Zambia, where Zaki disappeared for the fourth time that season. Mido returned on time, but Zaki was nowhere to be seen over 36 hours after he was due back, with rumours he was out celebrating his 26th birthday. Eventually a fax came through from the Egypt team doctor claiming he had injured his hamstring and needed to rest, although Wigan never received a scan. This proved to be the final straw for Bruce, who was fed up with a player who in 13 games in 2009 had failed to score.
“I feel it’s time that we went public on just what a nightmare he has been to deal with. I can honestly say that in all my time in football I have never worked with someone as unprofessional. I really am at the end of my tether with him. Before this latest incident, Zaki has already been fined considerably more than the average person in Britain earns in a year and he will now receive another heavy fine.”
Read | The 15 minutes of fame that made Michu a Premier League cult hero
This was the main criticism levelled at Zaki; that he only really seemed interested when it suited him, with his lack of professionalism proving fatal. Bruce claims Zaki was used towards the end of the season simply because there was no one else to pick. Asked to explain the demise of a seemingly born goalscorer, Bruce cited external influences: “It’s a shame, it really is. He had a wonderful chance over here, but he was badly advised, he listened to the wrong people.”
With the loan deal expired, the bidding war mentioned by the press in the autumn never came about, and Amr Zaki disappeared from the top. Despite the troubles Wigan endured, there was still interest from a few Premier League sides. A prospective move to Portsmouth broke down when Zaki claimed he would be unable to play under an Israeli manager in Avram Grant, and alongside an Algerian in Nadir Belhadj.
Back with Zamalek, Zaki failed to rediscover his scoring touch, with six games played before sustaining a hamstring injury. His unprofessional nature showed no sign of maturing, with the player regularly skipping training without notice and refusing to return calls from the club. Zaki defended his actions by pointing to the deteriorating health of his daughter, alongside being upset at having missed out on the 2009 AFCON squad. Zamalek subsequently transfer listed him, stating “any worthy offers will be accepted”.
A short-lived return to England came about in January 2010 as he signed on loan for struggling Hull, but he was rarely fit and failed to score in six appearances. With a knee injury sustained in April, thereby ending his season, new boss Iain Dowie decided to terminate the loan early. These injuries were to ultimately hamper Zaki for the rest of his career.
Another return to Zamalek followed, although he was in and out of the squad, with a serious knee problem keeping him sidelined for 10 months. His return to fitness in October 2011 resulted in two goals to send Zamalek to the cup final, but he lost out on a third career triumph to ENPPI. In the summer of 2012 he moved back to Europe, signing a two-year contract at newly promoted Turkish side Elazığspor. No goals in eight games, a pay dispute, and another injury led to mutual termination.
A return to ENPPI was then ended after only 12 days due to fitness concerns, before another foreign foray with Kuwaiti side Al-Salmiya in 2013. Zaki did manage to get back on the pitch, playing nine times and forcing himself back into the Egypt side. He scored his first Pharaoh’s goal in nearly four years against Guinea in September, bagging two more against Zambia and Ghana in November. In early 2014 Zaki signed for Raja Casablanca, although he broke ligaments in his foot and failed to debut in Morocco, while the same thing occurred in August with Lebanese outfit Al Ahed.
Unfortunately, his recurring injuries were too much, and Zaki announced his retirement in August 2015. In his last game, an Egyptian Cup match for Arab Contractors in January of that year, Zaki only played 21 minutes. Unfortunately, his brief sojourn at the top of the European game feels like it didn’t last much longer than that.
By James Kelly @jkell403