Contrition is not an attribute you would normally associate with Amr Zaki. The Egyptian striker has garnered something of a reputation for his hot-headed streak in recent years. But sitting in the empty kitchen of his empty home on the outskirts of Hull, shivering in an unseasonal sky blue T-shirt, it is clear that contrition is a virtue the Zaki has learnt quickly.
"I've been working since May, trying to get a move back to England. It has been really hard," he said, talking quietly as he flicked the temperature app on his iPhone between Hull, London, and Cairo. "I had come from Egypt and star-ted scoring goals straight away but I was always concentrating on the press, who was going to sign me. I've learnt. It was a mistake. That will never happen again." Of course, if everything had gone to plan, Zaki should not really be here, in the north east of England, preparing for a relegation dog-fight in the bleakest of British bleak mid-winters having just signed a six month loan deal for Hull City from Zamalek.
After all, his 10 goals last season for Wigan Athletic, all before Christmas, proved he could play at the highest level. Soon he was being linked with moves to Real Madrid and Liverpool. The interest, he admits with disarming honesty, ruined his season. "If you hear Real Madrid or Liverpool want you, you think a lot about it. I kept thinking about where to go next," he said. The distractions had begun to affect his manager, current Sunderland chief Steve Bruce, too.
"That was the main problem between me and Steve. He didn't think I was concentrating, and he was the one who brought me here so he was a little, let's say, jealous about it." Matters came to ahead when an injured Zaki returned to training five days late from Egypt, infuriating Bruce. It was the start of an annus horribilis for Zaki. His season petered out, as did the interest from Europe's top clubs. Bruce chose not take up his option to buy, and Zaki was sent back to Zamalek, a sobering experience after the earlier highs. "When I came back to Egypt I couldn't adapt," he admitted. "It's like a Turkish player or a Dutch player going home. In the best league, against the best players, you have the motivation and the ambition. Suddenly you fall back, back to where you began. I tried to do my best, but I couldn't."
Then there was the Egypt-Algeria game. Zaki played a leading role in last November's World Cup play-offs, which sparked a diplomatic incident between the two countries as riots raged from Marseilles to Jeddah. "The crowd [in Cairo] was really amazing. There was only one thing in the country, the game, the game," recalled Zaki, who scored the first goal of a 2-0 victory that forced a sudden-death play-off in neutral Sudan.
"We felt we had won already. We went to Sudan and all the media in Egypt, everyone, was too relaxed and thought we had qualified already." They had not, and they did not, Algeria squeezing past them 1-0. But the aftermath was felt far and wide. Such was the fall out that Zaki was reported to have turned down a move to Portsmouth because the team contained both Algerians and Israelis, a claim he rejects.
"There are Algerians playing for Hull City [striker Kamal Ghilas]," he said, shaking his head. "I don't take a decision based on these things. I played in Wigan with [Daniel] de Ridder [a Dutch-born Jew who now plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv]. If Portsmouth had enough money and were in a better position I'd move there, no problem." The sadness that The Pharaohs, Africa's best team after winning a record third successive African Cup of Nations, will not be at the World Cup in South Africa still rankles.
"After Hull played Chelsea [in a 1-1 draw], Didier Drogba said to me: "It is sad, you have the best team in Africa. It's a shame," Zaki said with a rueful smile. Still, 2010 has started infinitely better than 2009 did. The ambition is still there, to play for "one of the top five teams in England", a top five that, for Zaki, now includes Manchester City, Saturday's opponents and against whom he should make his first start.
"The first target is to not go back to Egypt," he said, half tongue-in-cheek. "The second is to show the Hull fans I deserve to be here and show the rest of the Premier League my discipline. That's what I want until the end of the season. I'm not thinking of anything else." With the interview finished, we shake hands. "Good luck," I offer him. "I need it," he replies, speaking for the first time in English.
Twelve months ago Amr Zaki might have answered in more bullish tones. But that's the thing with contrition: you always have to learn it the hard way. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org