x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Mohamed Aboutrika plays to pay tribute to the 72 Al Ahly fans who died at Port Said

Baniyas' new Egyptian playmaker held fans as they were dying following tragic events at Port Said last year, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Mohamed Aboutrika will wear the No 72 jersey at Baniyas in tribute to Al Ahly fans who died. Toru Yamanaka / AFP
Mohamed Aboutrika will wear the No 72 jersey at Baniyas in tribute to Al Ahly fans who died. Toru Yamanaka / AFP
Amid the graffiti and the murals painted on the walls at Tahrir Square in Cairo there is a painting of Mohamed Aboutrika.
A beard has been drawn on in reference to his piety but there is no doubt it is him, a footballer depicted as an emblem of the revolution.
Aboutrika, who has joined Baniyas on a six-month loan deal, is arguably the greatest player Egypt has produced, an intelligent and technically gifted playmaker with a sublime feel for a pass who was central to the Pharaohs' domination of the African Cup of Nations in the latter half of the past decade.
But over the past year he has become rather more than that.
On February 1 last year, Aboutrika turned out for Al Ahly against Al Masry in Port Said. It was a game that ended in tragedy, with the lights turned off, the gates locked and the police standing by as at least 72 Ahly fans died violently from attacks or from a stampede that ensued.
Who was responsible remains unclear, even after a trial in which 21 Masry ultras were sentenced to death for their part in the carnage. Few in Egypt doubt the carnage was related to the role Ahly ultras had taken in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the former president. What is clear is the role Aboutrika played, comforting dying fans in a blood-drenched dressing room.
"Those people are always in my mind because we held them as they were dying," he said.
"They are always with us and they give us strong motivation to honour them and give everything we have."
In the days that followed, Aboutrika and two of his Egypt teammates, Emad Moteab and Mohamed Barakat, retired from football before being persuaded back. Said Aboutrika: "I decided that I needed to play on for the people who died that night."
The league season was abandoned amid the turmoil but there was still an African Champions League to play for.
For Ahly, there was particular motivation but at half time in the second leg of their second knockout round tie against Mali's Stade Malien, they found themselves 2-0 down on aggregate.
Aboutrika had come on three minutes before half time for Mohamed Shawky. Early in the second half, he whipped in a free kick and then, with eight minutes remaining, he levelled the aggregate scores from the penalty spot before thrashing in the winner five minutes later.
Ahly went on to claim a record seventh Champions League title, beating Esperance of Tunisia 3-2 on aggregate in the final. That and pretty much everything Aboutrika has done since Port Said he sees as a tribute to the 72.
Poignantly, he was part of the Egypt side that qualified for the quarter-final of the Olympic Games in London, six months to the day after Port Said.
At the Club World Cup in Japan, he scored in Ahly's 2-1 win over Sanfrecce Hiroshima as they went on to finish fourth - a strike that made him the joint top scorer of all time in the tournament.
By then, Aboutrika had found himself aligned with Ultras Ahlawy, the hard core of the Ahly ultras, refusing to play in the Super Cup final against the ENPPI club as the Egyptian authorities tried to get football underway again in September.
As the club said he was injured, he insisted he was simply scared that Alexandria, where the game was scheduled to be played, would witness a massacre similar to that in Port Said.
Whether he was deliberately supporting fans opposed to the game being played was unclear, but as he apologised to the club for "any embarrassment" he may have caused them, a move felt inevitable, despite continuing moves to restart the Egyptian league.
That he has chosen 72 as his shirt number at Baniyas is a reference to those killed at Port Said and suggests how strong his feelings are for Ahly and their fans.
The political involvement is perhaps only natural for a man with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
"Every athlete," he has said, "has a humanitarian role in society. He doesn't live solely for himself, but for others, too."
He has worked with the United Nations in combating hunger and with the Egyptian government in promoting blood donation.
In 2008, after scoring in the African Cup of Nations against Sudan, he revealed a T-shirt expressing support for Gaza, which at the time was blockaded by Israel.
Beyond the politics, Aboutrika is a supremely gifted player. He may be 34 years of age but pace was never a great asset and experience has only sharpened an acute mind.
A lack of football over the past year may have left him rusty but this is a player who scored the winning penalty in the 2006 African Cup of Nations final shoot-out and the only goal in the 2008 final.
If he does regain his former sharpness, Baniyas - who currently are joint-second in the Pro League, nine points behind Al Ain - have signed an exceptional player - one who happens to be politically aware.
 
sports@thenational.ae
twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE