From Abdelghani to El Aynaoui: Some iconic moments in Arab sporting history
Reem Abulleil pays tribute to some of her favourite heroes in sport
The global suspension of professional sport has created a void many have been trying to fill by watching old matches and digging up footage online of some our favourite competitions.
This is a period that has brought on a lot of nostalgia, which was taken to a whole new level thanks to the release of Netflix/ESPN Films’ Michael Jordan docu-series last week.
The Last Dance – which chronicles Jordan and Phil Jackson’s final season with the Chicago Bulls – reminded me how I spent a huge part of the ‘90s waking up at outrageous hours, and sneaking in a few minutes of TV before heading to school, just to watch Jordan.
I had a Bulls cap I bought from the only store in Cairo that sold NBA merchandise and I pretty much wore it for two years straight. I’m also not ashamed to say that Space Jam was on repeat at Casa de Abulleil for months on end.
But Jordan was not the only athlete that kept me up at night. A lot of the great sporting moments that have stuck with me over the years are ones that are much closer to home – ones where the protagonists are some of the Arab world’s finest sports stars.
Ask any Egyptian, and they’ll tell you that the Pharaohs’ 1990 Fifa World Cup campaign was an unforgettable milestone for sport in the country. Egypt may have finished bottom of Group F but two draws against the Netherlands and Ireland, and a 1-0 defeat to England, was a decent enough showing for a nation that hadn’t played in a World Cup since the 1930s.
I was a seven-year-old, living in Kuwait at the time, watching those games and I vividly remember Magdi Abdelghani’s spot kick in Palermo against the Dutch that gave us our only goal in Italy. Granted Abdelghani has not stopped talking about it since, and that penalty has become so deep-rooted in Egyptian pop culture, it took on a life of its own. We even know the live TV commentary to it verbatim.
But that campaign cannot be reduced to a single goal. The 1990 World Cup was my first taste of football fanaticism. It showed me how an entire nation can unite over a sport.
I wasn’t in Egypt, but I saw on TV how that one competition captivated everyone back home, and I remember all the fan interviews before and after the games (especially those overexcited Egyptian supporters who struggled to pronounce the word ‘Ireland’ on live television).
Mohamed Salah helped end Egypt’s 28-year wait for another World Cup appearance but Italia 90 will remain a classic moment in our footballing history.
Many Arab athletes have had a huge impact over the past 30 years.
Egyptian swimmer Rania Elwani competed in three consecutive Olympics from 1992 to 2000, and made the semi-finals in the 50m and 100m freestyle in Sydney before retiring from the sport.
Elwani was Egypt’s poster girl for swimming throughout the ‘90s. Her achievements were later surpassed by her compatriot Farida Osman, a former junior world champion who clinched bronze medals in the 50m butterfly in back-to-back World Championships in 2017 and 2019.
Osman has sparked a swimming revolution in Egypt and the Arab world, with many following in her footsteps, studying in the United States via athletic scholarships, and making a name for themselves in the NCAA as well as the global stage.
Tunisian Oussama Mellouli is the most successful Arab swimmer in history, with three Olympic medals (two gold, one bronze) and many more captured at Worlds.
Mellouli is someone I admired for many years, but his most jaw-dropping feat came at the London 2012 Olympics when he became the first swimmer to win medals in the pool and in open water at the same Games.
It was his third Olympics and he had an outrageous goal. Many open water swimmers I spoke to had said Mellouli had no chance of being successful outside the pool. He didn’t just do well; he won the 10km race at the Serpentine in Hyde Park, just six days after taking bronze in the 1,500m freestyle in the pool of the London Aquatics Centre.
On the track, Moroccoan Hall of Famer Hicham El Guerrouj remains one of the region’s biggest icons in athletics. From his early rivalry with Algerian Noureddine Morceli, who was undefeated for four years in the 1,500m before El Guerrouj finally got the better of him, to his incredible world records in the mile and the 1,500m that stand to this day, the man from Berkane is a true inspiration.
A medal contender at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, El Guerrouj fell to the ground with 400m to go in the 1,500m. He ended up finishing last. The way he bounced back from that to best Morceli in Milan a month later was remarkable. The rest, as they say is history, and he finished his Olympic career with two golds and one silver.
When it comes to tennis, nothing compares to Younes El Aynaoui’s five-hour five-set quarter-final epic against Andy Roddick at the Australian Open in 2003. The Arab world got within one point of witnessing its first-ever Grand Slam semi-finalist but Roddick escaped and won the 83-game encounter 4-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19.
El Aynaoui, with his famous curly/dreadlocked hair and a fascinating self-made backstory, was 31 years old, facing a 10th-ranked 20-year-old Roddick. Just two days earlier, El Aynaoui had shocked reigning world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt at his home Grand Slam to move into the quarter-finals.
The Moroccan was a late-bloomer who followed an unorthodox trajectory in tennis, going against his parents’ wishes at the age of 18 by responding to a ‘help wanted’ ad at Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida.
He somehow made it from cleaning the gym and loading the ball machines at the academy, to a career-high ranking of No 14 in the world at the age of 32. With little to no support and barely anyone to guide him, the North African somehow found a way. And having met him many times over the past decade, I can see his passion for tennis still burns bright, even in retirement.
The thriller with Roddick is arguably the most stressful five hours of my life watching a tennis match. Once again, I’m up at an ungodly hour, following two big-hitters, 11 years of age apart, throwing everything at each other for five action-packed sets.
Slimmest of margins
The fifth set of that clash is the longest in Australian Open history. There was a ton of serve-and-volley action, there were 52 aces between them, there were dives, passing shots, clutch saves, momentum swings – everything you could possibly want from a tennis match.
Roddick saved a match point in the 10th game of the decider, failed to serve out the win at 11-10 but eventually triumphed by the slimmest of margins.
"My levels of respect for him just grew and grew throughout the match,” the American later said of El Aynaoui, vocalising what we all had been thinking. “He's 31-years-old, he's out there five hours, and he's still standing at the end. It's very impressive. I don't think I'll be able to do that when I'm 31.”
El Aynaoui is the highest-ranked Arab tennis player in history, and Roddick went on to win the US Open that year, and rose to No 1 in the world.
The highlights of this match are still regularly circulated on social media. I admit I click on them each time they turn up on my feed.
Updated: April 28, 2020 10:36 AM