x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Dubai's Egyptian residents show their adoration for Mohamed Aboutrika

The Egyptian community were out in force to witness the array of skills of arguably the greatest Arab player ever during his UAE debut; a defeat to Al Ain in the president's Cup, writes Ali Khaled.

Mohamed Aboutrika, the Al Ahly icon who is currently on a six-month loan at Baniyas, is loved by all Egyptian supporters 'and even Zamalek fans,' according to one fan who saw his UAE debut. Pawan Singh / The National
Mohamed Aboutrika, the Al Ahly icon who is currently on a six-month loan at Baniyas, is loved by all Egyptian supporters 'and even Zamalek fans,' according to one fan who saw his UAE debut. Pawan Singh / The National

A banner welcomed the new hero with the words "Aboutrika: the prince of hearts". There were flags of Egypt, and a few from Mohamed Aboutrika's beloved Al Ahly, the Cairo club he left to join the Pro League side Baniyas on loan last week.

"We are here for Aboutrika," said Yasser Ahmed, a 47-year-old Egyptian, identifying himself as "Ahlawy" the way a soldier proudly announces his rank.

"Yes we are Ahly fans but all Egyptians love him, even Zamalek fans."

Egypt's former captain could not have begun with a tougher assignment: a President's Cup quarter-final match against the league champions Al Ain at Al Wasl's Zabeel Stadium in Dubai.

In the first half, there were deft flicks and incisive passes. But not from the great man. They came, inevitably, from the left foot of Al Ain's Omar Abdulrahman, the man seemingly on a fast track to inherit Aboutrika's title as the Arab world's finest player.

Aboutrika, 34, struggled to get involved in the game, and was not helped by his teammates' insistence on playing long balls to their big forward, Andre Senghor. Having played little competitive football since December's Club World Cup, the new signing looked lost, and unhappy. And so did his Egyptian fans.

"It's clear he is not accustomed yet to his new team," said Ahmed, a Dubai-based construction foreman, as Baniyas finished the half a goal down. "It's early days yet, but he'll come good."

Their faith is not unfounded. Aboutrika has had a glorious career with Egypt, winning 96 caps, scoring 39 goals and leading his countrymen to two African Cup of Nations championships; in 2006 he slotted home the clinching penalty in a shoot-out; in 2008 he scored the only goal.

But on the day he made his Baniyas debut, Nigeria were defeating Burkina Faso in the final of the 2013 African Cup of Nations, a competition Egypt failed to reach both this year and last. Political turmoil, in particular the Port Said Stadium disaster in which 72 Ahly supporters were killed, has had a devastating effect on Egyptian football and cast a shadow over the latter part of Aboutrika's career. And they say politics and sports don't mix.

To his fans, however, he transcends both. In Egypt, he is idolised the way Diego Maradona is in Argentina.

"He represents us and those martyrs who died in Port Said," Ahmed said of Aboutrika, who held dying fans in his arms on that tragic day.

"We will never forget what he has done for Al Ahly and Egypt, and we love him for it. Who doesn't love Aboutrika?"

The love is mutual. Since joining Egypt's most famous team, in 2004, Aboutrika, now wearing the number 72 jersey - in honour of those Ahly fans who lost their lives - he has always considered himself, as a player and fan, "Ahlawy".

"It's his attitude that makes him different to other footballers," said Mohammed Mahmoud, another Ahlawy. "Football is all about professionalism and carrying yourself with dignity and that's what Aboutrika is about."

Aboutrika, of course, can a play a bit, too. When it is suggested he is perhaps the greatest Arab player of all time, the Ahlawy do not disagree.

"Of course he is the best current Egyptian player by a long way," Hamada Mohammed said. "Of all time? I would say he has definitely left a stamp on the history Arab football."

The second half saw the ranks of Baniyas fans swell with the late arrival of more Egyptian fans, many of whom had just finished work. Their new team slowly improved.

And then, in the 68th minute, the moment arrived. A sidestep, a trademark Aboutrika shot blasted from the edge of the box, and Baniyas were level. Genius may take its time, but it is always worth the wait. For the first time, the club's Emirati and Egyptian fans chanted in unison: "Aboutrika! Aboutrika!" On the pitch, at last, the scorer wore a big smile.

Suddenly the wonderfully noisy Baniyas fans, now with added bagpipes, sensed an upset. "Samawi yilab, Ainawi yitab." Or, "the Sky Blues play, the Ainawi fade." As if on cue, the peerless Abdulrahman misplaced a tired pass into touch.

But the champions struck back, Ali Al Wehaibi's 76th-minute strike sealing a 2-1 win for Al Ain. At the final whistle, Aboutrika exchanged shirts with Abdulrahman, a poignant passing-of-the-torch moment. For now, however, the Egyptian legend still has plenty of life in those feet. His adoring fans certainly have no doubt.

"You saw what he did in the second half, he did his bit, he changed the game," Ahmed said at full time. "He is Aboutrika."

The Emirati faithful at Baniyas left chanting his name, too, perhaps the beginning of a new love affair. After all, who doesn't love Aboutrika?



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